By Karen F & Randy S.
with special contributions by Helen Adams & the Tahoe Ladies

Co-Author’s note:  This final season story has a cameo appearance by a character created by Karen for her original-cast story “The Luck of the Draw” also  on this site

Chapter 1

Wednesday - April 28

Two men rode steadily over the rugged terrain, carefully keeping their horses at a measured pace in the knowledge they had a long way to go before they arrived home.  Joe Cartwright ran a hand through his gray-flecked curls and stretched in the saddle.

“You know, Walt, the older I get, the harder it is to make this trip every year.” Joe smiled ruefully at his companion, a grizzled cowboy with iron gray hair and disgruntled expression.  “It’s only when I look at the zeros on the cashier’s check that I remember it’s worth it.”

“It was a good string of horses,” the other man replied.  “That stallion, in particular.  He sure gave you a run for your money, but look at the price you got for him.  Mr. Boone knows quality when he sees it.  Too bad he’s too miserly to put his hands up decently.  His bunkhouse cots put a crick in my back.  Sure will be nice to get back to the Ponderosa.”

Joe uncapped his canteen and took a long swallow.  Gazing into the distance, he squinted at the sun, and then looked speculatively at the distant hills.  They’d been trying to put in as many miles in as they could before sunset, but with three days in the saddle since leaving Boone’s ranch, he was tired, sore and more than ready for a hot bath and a good meal.  He gestured to his right with one gloved hand.  “I think there’s an old way station a couple of miles ahead.  It’ll give us a chance to sleep under a roof for a change.  Not the Ponderosa, but the best we can do. Maybe we’ll even be able to scare up a rabbit or two for supper.  I could sure use a change from those beans.”

Walt shrugged.  “Whatever you say, Joe.  You’re the boss.  Shouldn’t be more’n day till we get home.  I guess I can make it, but a cup of hot coffee and fresh meat does sound good.”

Joe’s distinctive giggle cut through the air.  He nudged his pinto, and the animal moved a little faster.  “Well, what are you waiting for?” he called back over his shoulder.  “Last man to the shack has to get supper.”

Walt grudgingly followed suit.  Joe glanced back again, a wry grin on his face.  The hand wasn’t one of the most pleasant men on the Ponderosa, but he got his job done with a minimum of fuss.  It wasn’t Walt’s fault he lacked a sparkling wit or an entertaining conversational style.  Turning away, Joe urged Cochise forward.  Supper sounded better all the time.

The pair rode toward the shack, a cloud of dust rising in their wake.

* * *

A pair of gloved hands shut the spyglass with a snap, replacing it in its leather case with a crisp movement.  With a nod of satisfaction, the man noted the pair remained unaware of his presence.  He’d been following them throughout the journey, carefully keeping just out of their range.  It wouldn’t do to reveal himself too soon.  Revenge was to be savored, not devoured.  Tomorrow would be soon enough to set his plan in motion, and he’d carefully scouted out the perfect spot weeks earlier.  He licked his lips and urged his horse forward.  It was time to circle around the pair from the Ponderosa.

Thursday - April 29

An early start the next morning with the promise of sleeping in his own bed that night put Walt in a better mood.  Joe caught the man grinning a time or two over some scrap of conversation, and he worked harder to produce that rare expression.  But as the grueling miles continued even his conversation petered out to an occasional grunt.

Familiar landmarks and the knowledge that home was just a little over an hour away brought a resurgence of Joe’s good mood, and he smiled over at the older man.  “Almost there, Walt.  I want to thank you for all your hard work on this trip.  You were a big help.”

“Just doing my job, Joe.  Don’t ever do no different,” Walt replied sourly.  “It sure gets harder every year, I’ll grant you.  I’ll flip you for first crack at the hot water when we get back.  These old bones are gonna need a soak.  Loser can put up the horses.”

They cantered through the towering pines that lined the pathway, and Joe inhaled the crisp scent eagerly.  To him, the smell meant home.  “You’ve got a deal,” he replied.

The roadway curved ahead of them and the horses dutifully swept along the gentle bend.  Then Joe pulled up sharply, a low whistle leaving his lips.  “Looks like an accident up ahead, Walt.  Guess we should stop to help.”

He motioned toward the spot where a large wagon lay on its side, obscuring half the road.  Boxes and barrels were spread around in the dust, and they could make out the figure of a man crouched over the wagon’s axle, some sort of tool gleaming in his hands.

Walt shot a sour glance at his employer.  “There ain’t any need to stop, Joe.  There’s a fella working on that wagon, and he’s most likely got it well in hand.  We’re only an hour from home; let’s ride on.  Hop Sing’s probably got a good dinner waiting for us and I sure don’t want to miss that.”

“It won’t hurt to check.  An extra pair of hands might be just what he needs to get that wagon upright again,” Joe replied patiently.  “Don’t be so grouchy, ok?”

He ignored the older man’s grumbles as they rode toward the wagon.  As they approached, the stranger straightened up, a large hammer gripped tightly in one hand.  He lifted the other to shade his eyes as he peered at the riders.  He stood in silent wariness, waiting for the others to speak first.

Joe and Walt pulled their horses to a stop as Joe touched a gloved finger to his hat brim in greeting.  “Need any help, Mister?” he said with a grin.  “Looks like you’ve got a problem.”

The man relaxed a little and let the hammer drift downwards.  “I’d appreciate it.  Can one of you grab that axle while I get this wheel back on?” he replied.  “I haven’t been able to do it by myself, the wheel keeps sliding away from me.”

Joe was already dismounting, steadfastly ignoring the steady stream of muffled curses issuing from Walt’s lips.  “Sure thing.  Walt, get on down here and let’s take a look at this thing.”  He stopped to loop Cochise’s reins over a nearby bush, making sure the horse had some grass to graze on.

Walt followed Joe’s lead, and the pair moved to examine the wagon’s damaged axle.  Joe crouched in the dusty road and scrutinized the shaft minutely.  “Looks like the axle’s okay, but it needs a bit more grease before we’re going to get that wheel back on.”  He glanced up at the stranger.  “You got any grease in this wagon?”

The man nodded.  “Yep.  But it was way up in the front.  We’d have to crawl in and dig around for it.”  He waved his hand at the wooden over-structure that had somehow managed to stay attached to the fallen vehicle.

Joe glanced at the mess, and shook his head ruefully.  “I don’t see that we have any other choice. Walt, you stay out here and help move some of these boxes out of the way.  I’ll climb in and see if I can dig out that grease.”  He ducked his head through the opening at the back of the wagon and began the painstaking crawl through the debris littering the interior.

Walt glared at Joe’s back, but he moved around to the front side of the wagon and bent to the task he’d been given.  As he stooped to lift a heavy flour sack from the roadway, he felt a sharp pain at the base of his skull.  He reached back instinctively, a question forming in his suddenly groggy mind.  Before his questing hand had risen half way to the back of his head, a second blow hit and he dropped like a stone, the pain no longer a bother as his world went black.

Inside the wagon, Joe picked his way through an assortment of barrels and boxes, intent on reaching the grease can lying just ahead of him.  Outside he heard a muffled thud and he stopped to listen.  A sense of something not quite right nagged at him.  He snatched up the grease and, moving as quickly as he could, backed out of the wagon, emerging from the same entrance he’d gone in.

“I heard a noise?  Is everything all right out there?” he called.  The words died in his throat as Joe spied the body lying on the ground behind the wagon.  “Walt?”

As he raced to kneel beside the older man’s body, his first thought was heart attack.  He ripped at his shirt to check for a heartbeat.  “What happened?” he exclaimed.  “Walt?”

He lifted the man’s head only to have his fingers come away liberally coated with blood.  He raised startled eyes toward the stranger who stood watching the scene.  Joe registered the man’s self-satisfied grin and his hand automatically reached toward his left hip.  The movement was destined to go uncompleted.  His position as he knelt by Walt delayed him for a precious half-second.  The stranger moved in fast, his hand rising in an upward arc, the glint of the hammer in his hand.  He brought the tool down hard on the back of Joe’s head, once, then twice.

Joe felt himself being slammed back onto the trail.  “Why?” he managed to croak, as the darkness overtook him.  His body fell to the dusty roadway in a boneless heap.

* * *

The stranger stood over the two bodies with a gloating smile.  “You made that too easy, Cartwright,” he said with a smirk.  “I thought I’d have a fight on my hands.”  He bent to finish his task; the grim smile never leaving his lips.

Chapter 2

Sunday - May 2 - midmorning

Griff sat on his horse watching as Candy made his way down the ridge trail to join the growing crowd of mourners come to pay their respects.  When he’d gestured for Candy to precede him, he’d intended to follow him down on foot, leaving his horse behind with his little border collie.   Charles would stay if he thought he was guarding Griff’s horse.  Otherwise, his attention span was only good for a few minutes and he’d be down amongst the mourners looking for someone to throw a stick for him.   Charles had no sense of propriety.  There were some solemn occasions when a little disruption wasn’t such a bad thing.  This wasn’t one of them.  Griff had no intention of allowing Charles to cause a disruption when so many were hurting so badly.

There were dozens of people already gathered around the family plot overlooking the lake where the body of Joe Cartwright would shortly join that of his mother, his brother, his wife and his unborn child.  Griff could see a steady stream of people walking down the dirt road, unable to park their buggies and buckboards any closer because of the glut of mourners who’d preceded them.  Griff watched the silver-haired figure standing next to the minister, looking alone and bereft despite the crowd of friends there to comfort him.  Mostly friends, Griff thought a little cynically, plus those who had simply come out of duty or to curry favor with one of the most powerful men in Nevada.

And even here where everyone had come together to give comfort or show respect, all the black faces were in the back. Even Hiram and Jared, two of Joe’s closest friends, stayed "in their place." Hop Sing was with the representatives of the Chinese community who all stood to the far side. The Cartwrights had friends from every walk of life, but that didn’t mean these friends would tolerate each other, even on an occasion that should have brought them together.

When fresh out of prison, Griff had envied Joe and his father their power and the land and wealth that supported it.   But mostly, he’d resented their power over him.  During the year or so he’d worked there, barred by his parole conditions from leaving, he’d learned of the losses they’d both suffered.  But he’d refused to feel any pity.  Joe was young; he'd marry again and give Ben Cartwright the grandchildren he’d always wanted – the heirs to his empire.

But now that had been snatched away in the cruelest fashion.   He’d worked his whole life to leave a legacy for his sons and grandchildren and it had turned to dust in his hands.    He’d lost the two sons who had loved the land as much as he.   Griff had heard there was another son, somewhere in Europe now.  Perhaps he would return, but a son who claimed his heritage out of obligation would be a bitter taste in the mouth of a man who had seemed to glory in the way his youngest had been growing into his position as the head of the Cartwright holdings.

No, not the youngest.  There was Jamie.  Griff’s heart went out to the young man standing next to his adopted father.   Although they stood close together, there seemed to be no emotional connection between them.   Ben Cartwright was isolated in his grief.  Jamie must feel like a stray who’d been taken in and now was nothing more than a bitter reminder that his adopted father had no blood sons left to carry on his legacy.  Griff thought maybe he should go down to the graveside, not because his presence would give Ben Cartwright any comfort, but because Jamie badly needed someone who would remember he’d suffered a loss as well.

But as he started to dismount, he saw two figures pushing their way through the crowd toward Jamie.  Candy got there first to stand between Jamie and Ben, putting a supportive hand on Jamie’s left shoulder.  Jamie looked over at him gratefully.   Then Jared’s tall, lanky frame was positioned on Jamie’s other side.  Although the same age, Jared was a head taller than Jamie.  Jamie had to reach up to embrace him in expression of their shared sorrow.  Jared had taken the role of Joe’s little brother long before Jamie came along and with him Jamie wouldn’t have to put on a brave front.

That decided Griff.  No one needed him here.  He didn’t belong in a crowd of Joe Cartwright’s friends.   He wheeled his horse and headed nowhere in particular, lost in his thoughts.   Charles ran along ahead, looking to scare up a rabbit probably.   He never caught one.  Just loved the thrill of the chase.

Griff hadn’t even liked Joe at first.  Seemed like every time he’d given Ben any lip, and in those first few weeks there’d been plenty of those times, Joe was there with that little smirk on his face, sometimes followed by that silly giggle thing he did.  It was only when Griff had finally groused about it to Candy that he’d found out what that irritating smirk really meant.

Candy had given him a little punch on the shoulder and grinned.  “You think you’re the center of the world Griff?  Joe’s not laughing at you.  Just watch him next time his father has to deal with some mischief Jamie’s gotten into.   The way I heard it, Joe spent the first part of his life on the receiving end of those parental lectures.  He just loves watching his father going through it with someone else.  You stop acting like a sullen kid and you’ll stop providing Joe with entertainment.”

Candy’d been right.  Once he’d stopped treating Mr. Cartwright as though daring him to send him back to prison, there’d been no more confrontations and no more smirking from Joe.  At least not on Griff’s account.  Jamie was another story.   He was at an age where confrontations were inevitable.

And now Jamie was all his father had.

Ahead of him, Charles rousted a rabbit and took off full speed.   Griff decided he could use a little run himself and nudged his horse into a gallop as the little black and white dog disappeared over a hill.

Griff couldn’t tell whether the dog ran out of steam before the rabbit disappeared or if the rabbit was just too fast.  But by the time Griff had crested a second hill, Charles was there waiting, panting to beat the band and looking a little chagrined at having lost his quarry.    Griff slowed his horse and looked down at the little dog.   “That was quick.  You losin’ your drive little buddy?  Maybe we can find you a nice fat house cat next time.”

Griff turned his horse down the old stage road that lead into Virginia City, not really intending to go all the way into town, just not wanting to go back to the funeral service.   But when he found himself at what was left of the little shack, he wondered if he’d been headed there all along.

He hadn’t intended to go back, not ever.   He’d woken in a cold sweat last night thinking of Joe shackled to that cast iron stove as the shack burned to the ground around him.   Shackled so he couldn’t escape.  Shackled because he was alive.

* * *

They’d had a bad feeling Friday morning when Cochise came into the ranch yard trailing his reins with old Walt’s horse coming up behind.   Wasn’t likely both men had been thrown at the same time.  And it wasn’t like Cochise to leave Joe unless he was spooked pretty badly over something.   Candy took Griff along when he backtracked the two horses, though Griff couldn’t track for beans and Charles wasn’t much of a tracking dog.  But Candy knew Charles could sniff out a downed man if that’s what needed to be done.  Mr. Cartwright had been at a meeting in Virginia City or he surely would have come along.  Griff was glad he hadn’t.  There were some things no father should ever see.

Candy figured Joe and Walt would have come cross country onto the old stage road before turning onto the main trail toward the ranch house.  So he’d just checked the tracks often enough to make sure they indicated two riderless horses had passed that way.  When they’d reached the place where Joe and Walt had dismounted, it didn’t take them long to realize whatever had happened to Joe and Walt, it had been at the hand of man, not nature.  They hadn’t needed Charles to show them enough blood on the ground to have them fearing the worst.

Candy figured out a staged accident/robbery scenario quickly.    From there they’d tracked the wagon to an old shack outside of town.  Their hope that the robber had decided to keep Joe for ransom had been dashed in the still-smoking ruins.  They’d found Walt’s partially burned body in what had been the doorway.   His skull was crushed.  What was inside was much worse --   Joe lying face down at the base of a cast iron stove, his arms around it, shackled with heavy iron manacles.  Whoever had done this had wanted everyone to know Joe was alive before the fire destroyed his body.   Wanted everyone, or maybe only Mr. Cartwright, to have nightmares of Joe struggling to free himself, to wonder whether he had choked to death on the smoke before the flames burned his flesh.  Candy found what was left of Joe’s revolver on the left side of the body where it had fallen after the holster had been consumed by the flames.   Griff would never forget the look on Candy’s face when he turned the burned body over and found the buckle Joe won in a horse race at the last 4th of July celebration.   Griff realized Candy’d been hoping against reason that despite the fact the other body was unmistakably Walt, this one was some stranger, someone who wasn’t Candy’s friend.  Later, after Clem had taken over the investigation, he’d found the melted remains of the wedding band Joe had worn on a chain around his neck since Alice’s death.

So why had Griff ended up back here?   With Clem, they’d carefully raked through the entire shack and the area around it and come up with nothing to indicate who’d set the fire.  They’d never found old Jenks who’d taken up unofficial residence in the abandoned shack.  But he frequently disappeared for days at a time after he’d made a little money swamping out a few of the saloons.   He was just an old drunk.  No one believed him capable of this crime.  But there was some thought he might have been paid off to be absent when the fire was set.

Griff doubted the man knowingly participated in murder, or even robbery.  But he did love his whiskey and could easily have been tricked into cooperation.    Griff had developed a liking for the old alkie since the night he’d used his mop to drive off a couple of drunks who’d been making somewhat ineffectual efforts to kick Charles as he lay waiting on the board walk guarding Griff’s horse.  Griff had been inside having a beer with a few of the boys and came out in time to put a fist to one of the men when he tried to retaliate against Jenks.  Griff bought him a meal once in a while, though Jenks would always rather have a bottle of whiskey.

Griff wandered in ever widening circles around the shack.  He’d reached the woods well away from it when something shiny caught his eye.  He reached over and pulled a bone-handled knife from where it had been left stuck into a tree, half the shiny blade exposed to the sun.  When he saw the emblem and initials carved into the handle, a cold knot formed in his stomach so quickly he almost doubled over in pain.  He dropped the knife as though it was red hot.  It thudded against his boot and fell into the grass.

His breath came hard and for a few minutes he couldn’t bring himself to pick it up.   The Wolf.   The last time he’d seen those few lines forming the picture of the howling wolf it had been a tattoo on the forearm of Wolfgang Reinhardt, the most feared man in Nevada State Prison.  But he was still locked up.  He had to be.  He’d been serving a triple life sentence.  Still, Griff couldn’t stop himself from looking around to make sure he was really alone.

Finally Griff pulled the bandanna from around his neck and picked up the knife with it.  He knew he was being foolish and wouldn’t have done it if he were being observed by anyone but Charles.   That little scrap of red cloth wouldn’t protect him from whatever curse lay on that knife.  But he just couldn’t bring himself to touch it again.

A closer look at the handle only confirmed what that first glance had told him.  The howling wolf and the initials W.R. -- this knife hadn’t been left as an oversight.   Whoever left it had done so on the orders of the Wolf.  He never took revenge in secret.  He wanted Ben Cartwright to know who was responsible for killing his son.

Chapter 3

 Sunday - May 2

A vague sense of awareness filtered through the black nothingness.  Joe forced himself to breathe, concentrating on first one breath, then another.  A sharp spasm of pain ricocheted through his head and he moaned, or tried to.  He felt the first stirrings of fear when he couldn’t make a sound.   He blinked rapidly to clear his vision to no avail; the darkness continued to enshroud him.  Fear escalated to outright panic when he tried to lift his hands to his face.  His wrists were firmly affixed to something; no matter how hard he tried, they wouldn’t budge.

I’m dead, he thought frantically. I’m dead and buried.

His heart pounded rapidly in his chest and another spasm of pain racked his head.  He calmed slightly when he acknowledged that if he were dead, he wouldn’t be feeling any pain.  And he wouldn’t be breathing.

Think, Joe.  What happened?  Where are you? Take it one step at a time.

Again he concentrated on his breathing, striving to get as much air through his nose as he could and then exhaling slowly.    Panic receded slowly, but the pain in his head continued unabated, making his thoughts muddled and sluggish.  Something was tied tightly across his mouth.   He tried to force his hands to his head to remove whatever it was, but to no avail.  He caught the clink of metal and felt a heavy weight on each wrist.

Definitely not dead.  Dead men don’t need to be shackled and they sure don’t have headaches.

He would have laughed if his situation hadn’t been so horrifying. But the simple relief of realizing that he was still alive was dizzying.  He focused his thoughts with difficulty.  What was the last thing he remembered?

Walt.  Oh, God!

The vision of Walt’s lifeless body lying in the roadway, the older man’s lifeblood spilling out over Joe’s fingertips invaded his thoughts.  Walt was dead.

But why?  Not robbery, or he’d have killed me too.  And where am I?  A coffin.  He’s buried me.

Panic rose again as Joe struggled, an urgent need to escape engulfing him.  His head swam dizzily; white sparks exploded in the darkness and he slipped back into the merciful oblivion of unconsciousness.

Chapter 4

 Sunday - May 2

Griff stared at the knife in his hand for long moment, frozen into inaction by a fear he hadn’t known since he’d been thrown into that cellblock, a scared 18-year-old kid among a couple dozen hardened cons.  He soon learned there was one man to fear above all others.  Wolfgang Reinhardt.   Even the guards walked uneasily in his presence.

The Wolf was tall and lean, but not the biggest or strongest man locked in that hellhole  with them.  Yet there was something about his eyes that made even the biggest man afraid to cross him.  He combined feral intelligence with cold cruelty.  No one, inmate or guard, crossed him without paying the price.  And half the price was the agonizing wait.  The Wolf took his time.   A man would get a look that said he’d earned punishment.   The man might stay awake every night for a week.  But when he thought maybe he was in the clear or he just couldn’t maintain his watchfulness, he’d lose an ear while he slept and no one would ever see the Wolf with a shiv.

He didn’t always use a blade.   When they’d put old Hadley on kitchen detail, he’d failed to understand the Wolf got a special meal.  Two weeks later Hadley was served his own special meal - spiked with rat poison.

And he didn’t always strike directly at the person who’d crossed him.   Bob Duggan had taken his younger brother into the family business - stage robbery.   And he’d taken him along through the trial and into cellblock B.  Bob didn’t have much use for most people, but he protected his brother Matt with a fierce family loyalty.  When he’d earned the animosity of the Wolf, he’d been careful to watch his own back.  But things started happening to Matt.   A heavy door destroyed his hand.   A pot of boiling water scarred his face and ruined one eye.  When Matt was sent on a work detail without Bob, his foot was impaled with a pick.  Medical conditions in the prison being what they were, the foot had gotten infected.  By the time the doctor  arrived two days later, it had to be amputated.   Everyone knew the Wolf was responsible but he was a vengeful ghost.  Never caught.  Bob went after him directly and ended up in the Hell Box for his trouble.  When he got out, he was broken.  Matt was safe after that but Bob became the Wolf’s groveling minion.

Griff had done his best to steer clear of the Wolf.  But in the back of his mind he’d always been afraid he might do something to antagonize him.   Or worse, the Wolf would decide Griff should help him in one of his vendettas.  He’d spent his first few months under this cloud of fear.   Then the Wolf had gone too far.  He’d killed a guard, or had him killed.  No one could prove anything, but everyone knew.  He’d been transferred to solitary and from then on Griff had only to deal with ordinary thugs and bullies.

Griff shook his head as though to clear his mind of the thoughts the simple bone-handled knife had generated.  He had to do something with the knife.  It was the only link they had to the killer.  His first thought was to take it to Candy.  But Candy would just take it to Clem and it would save time if Griff did it directly.  Clem would need to send a wire to the prison to see if anyone associated with the Wolf had been released recently.

Clem didn’t have much use for Griff or Griff for him.  Griff had only spent one night on the Ponderosa before Clem tried to take him in on suspicion of burglarizing a store in town on no better evidence than that he was an ex-con.   One of the men had given him an alibi, but a couple of nights later the express office was robbed as Griff went in to pick up a package for someone.  Clem hadn’t taken it kindly when Griff used a rifle from the sheriff’s office to lock Clem in one of his own cells so he could turn tail.  Griff had been cleared when the right man was caught, but Clem hadn’t forgotten.   Still, Clem would see the importance of the knife regardless of the source.  And Clem would probably know why Reinhardt had gone for Joe.

But of course Clem wasn’t in his office.  He hadn’t gotten back from the funeral.  The deputy in charge was a fool left behind to take messages until the real law returned to town.   So Griff decided to move things along on his own.

The telegraph office was deserted except for Mr. Borden’s apprentice Henry.  Griff went in, trying to look as though he was on official business.  “Hey, Henry, Clem wants me to send a telegram to the prison.”

Young Henry looked up skeptically.  “You’re going to send a wire to the prison?  For Clem?  Why doesn’t he send it himself?”

“He’s still at the funeral.   There’s some important evidence that needs to be checked out with the prison so I came in to send the wire.  I’m not much for funerals but Clem’s a long time family friend and couldn’t leave.”

That seemed to satisfy Henry.  He handed over a form for Griff to write out his message.  Something stopped Griff from including the question that was really eating at him.  He refused to believe the Wolf had managed to buy himself a parole.  He must have used everything he had to get three life sentences when he deserved a hangman’s noose.   And besides, he was also wanted in Arizona.  If he’d managed a parole in Nevada, there were extradition papers waiting to send him there for trial.  So Griff sent a wire stating evidence had been found linking Reinhardt to the murder of Joe Cartwright.  Had anyone connected to him been paroled or otherwise released in the past few months?

Griff didn’t expect there’d be an answer before Clem got back to town.  If the prison had no information, there’d be hell to pay when Clem saw the cost of the wire on the Sheriff’s account.   Griff couldn’t cover the cost himself.  No one had gotten paid on Saturday.   And to their credit, no one had grumbled about the fact that such mundane matters had been overlooked.   Griff decided to use the time to pry Jenks out of whatever hole he’d crawled into with his bottle.

But two hours later Griff had just about run out of places to look and people to ask.  An old derelict like Jenks tended to be invisible to most respectable people.  Only the saloonkeepers who hired him to swamp out their establishments had any use for him at all.   He’d covered all the saloons and both livery stables.  Jenks hadn’t been seen by anyone for several days.  Griff was headed back to the Sheriff’s office when he ran into Barney Webster, the night bartender at the Silver Slipper.  The day man hadn’t seen Jenks, but swampers were often hired by the night men.

“Barney, got a minute?”

Barney always had a minute, or an hour.  His job made him privy to lots of town gossip and he liked nothing better than sharing it.  Of course, he preferred sharing it with paying customers. Still, he didn’t look too put out by the idea of jawing a little with Griff.  He did seem a little perplexed by Griff’s choice of topic.

“You seen Jenks around lately?  He works for you pretty regular, doesn’t he?”

Barney scowled.  “He stays sober enough most nights to do a decent job before he sucks down a bottle.  But he came ‘round Wednesday claiming he’d found someone who’d pay him twice as much for easier work.”

“What kind of work?”

“Didn’t say.  But I saw him a couple of hours later ridin’ off with some guy drivin’ a patent medicine wagon.  I thought it was a little strange ‘cause the guy never did run his sales pitch here.  Probably Clem ran him off before he had a chance.  You remember the problems we had with that last guy.”

Griff remembered.   Dr. Alonzo with his famous Herbal Remedy had been selling a beverage with a higher alcohol content than the whiskey sold in most of the saloons - especially those that watered their whiskey.   It was the saloon owners, not the local citizenry who’d prevailed on Clem to run the good “doctor” out of town.

 “What’d the guy look like?”

“Didn’t get a good look at him.  He had a dark beard and was wearing a broad -brimmed hat.  Should be easy to find though.  His wagon had a big painted sign on it.   Funny sign too.  No words, just a picture of a wolf.”

Chapter 5

 Sunday - May 2

The darkness was unchanging and so the return to a sense of wakefulness was slow.  Only when he became aware of the rhythmic lurching did Joe realize he was awake again.  The motion lulled him, almost sending him back into a restless sleep.   He jerked himself awake, forcing himself to feel the pain in his head and the dull tingling in his arms.  Vague images of someone forcing water into his mouth flitted through his muddled mind.

Pa? Hop Sing?

No, definitely not them.  The hands were too rough and uncaring.  But who?

Stay awake!  He commanded himself. Got to think. I’m moving.  Coffins don’t move.  Where am I?  Not buried.  Good.  But where?

The thoughts were slow and confused, and Joe struggled to focus.  His mouth, uncomfortably full with a wad of cloth, felt dry and his lips cracked when he moved them.  He vaguely remembered the cloth being pulled out and put back in.  Those vague images of being forced to drink were real then.  His thoughts swirled in a dizzying confusion. He curled his fingers into his palm and clenched hard.  The pain forced his thoughts to rally.  He knew his head injury was causing some of the confusion, and the unchanging darkness only compounded his inability to think rationally.

Moving.  He strained to hear anything beyond his dark tomb.  There!  What’s that?  Hoof beats.  A horse.  Wagon.  It’s a wagon!  But so dark and small.

Joe gasped again as the wagon started moving faster.  The frantic lurching sent another jagged spear of pain lancing through his head as his whole body was bounced unmercifully.  He thought about wagons in order to distract himself from the pain.  Why would a wagon be so small and so dark?  He felt a measure of triumph as he grasped the answer.  He’d seen wagons with false bottoms; specially rigged wagons that carried contraband, or cargo that the driver wanted hidden from prying eyes.

That’s it!  Not a coffin, but a hidden compartment under the wagon bed.

Again Joe suppressed a giddy chuckle.  He realized he wasn’t thinking rationally, as his emotions crashed up and down from the keyed up happiness at being alive and aware of where he was, to the depths of despair at the image of Walt’s limp body and the fear of what his captor wanted from him.

Escape.  Need to escape.  Come on, Joe.  Think.  There’s got to be a way.

This time he felt the onset of disorientation and knew he was slipping back into the darkness. He fought the rising tide of unconsciousness, but it was no use.  Again, time ceased to have any meaning.

Chapter 6

Sunday - May 2

It was dusk before Griff got back to the Ponderosa.   The wire from the prison had spurred Clem to put together a posse to leave at dawn the next morning.   Wolfgang Reinhardt had killed two guards and escaped from the prison a month earlier.  Clem cursed the bumbling idiots who’d failed to notify him.  The prison administrators had to be aware that Reinhardt blamed the Cartwrights for the death of his brother eight years earlier.    Heinz Reinhardt had been hung for the death of a teller in one of the bank robberies Reinhardt himself had probably masterminded.  Ben Cartwright, wounded in the robbery, had been one of the principal witnesses against him.  Hoss had been in the posse that brought him in.  Joe had helped bring in two of the others.

Clem hadn’t made too much effort to disguise his animosity for Griff but he’d trusted him to take word back to the Ponderosa.  He wanted a few of the hands for the posse but also cautioned Griff to make sure Ben and Jamie had plenty of armed men remain behind.  He figured Reinhardt wouldn’t stop with killing Joe.  He’d be after Ben too.

Griff agreed.  But the Wolf would want Joe’s father to linger over the worst of his pain.    Griff suspected he’d wait until Mr. Cartrwright started to emerge from the shroud of grief.  And then it might be Jamie who’d be the next target.  He’d save Ben for last.

And there was something else.  Something Griff wouldn’t repeat to anyone.  Something that drove him to put spurs to his horse.

Barely an hour after he handed his lathered horse over to one of the other hands to take care of, Griff had six horses ready to go, two saddled and two extras each for himself and Candy so they could ride hard in relay, taking advantage of the almost full moon.  He’d been surprised that Candy hadn’t put up much of an argument.

* * *

Candy stood in front of the big desk facing a tired old man.  Only three days earlier, Candy would have described him as a vibrant man with a personality that dominated any group he was in.  But tonight he cursed the fact that he had to argue with a man who didn’t have the energy to listen, much less put up a fight.  Ben expected him to ride with Clem’s posse and Candy had to make him understand why he wanted to ride out alone with Griff.  Trouble was Candy didn’t quite understand it himself, which made explaining all the more difficult.

There was something about Griff’s urgency and his knowledge of Wolfgang Reinhardt that drew Candy in.  But what had decided him was the naked fear Griff obviously had of the man he called the Wolf.  He tried to hide it, but it was there for anyone who knew him as well as Candy did.  Of course, there was no one else who knew Griff that well.  If Griff believed so strongly that they had to go after the man alone and he was willing to face that much fear to do it, Candy had to believe he had good reason.

So in the end, Ben folded, too drained to put up any resistance.  Candy collected a few days’ supplies from Hop Sing who was busy putting up food for the four hands who would be riding with the posse.  Hop Sing for once had nothing to say.  No grumbling about the extra work and no happy chatter.  Joe’s death had taken the heart out of the household.

Griff came into the kitchen as Candy was distributing food between the two sacks already heavy with other supplies.   Griff gestured toward the front room, “Clem’s here to talk to Mr. Cartwright.  I guess you’ll have to convince him now.”

Candy shrugged.  He hoisted one sack on his shoulder and handed the other to Griff.  He thought about just leaving through the kitchen door and taking off, but maybe Clem had some news.  He gestured for Griff to wait and headed  for the door to the dining room.

He stopped when he heard Clem speak Griff’s name.

“Ben, I don’t think its good idea to let Candy ride off with Griff.  We still don’t know much about that kid except that he’s got a hot temper and gets violent when he’s cornered.”

Candy was suddenly aware of Griff beside him in the doorway.  Candy blocked the doorway with an outstretched arm when he tried to push his way into the room.  The last thing Ben needed was a confrontation between Clem and Griff.  He was gratified to hear Ben speak up for Griff.

“Clem, Griff didn’t get violent.  He didn’t have any intention of shooting either of us.  He was wrongly accused and afraid of being sent back to prison on a trumped up charge.”

Clem started to respond and Ben cut him off.  “I know; he would have gotten a fair trial.  But how could he know that?  It doesn’t appear he got one the first time when his abusive stepfather got him sentenced to prison for doing no more than he’d been doing to Griff every time he got drunk”

But Clem wasn’t going to let it lie.  “Ben, this guy knew just where to lay that trap for Joe and Walt.  There’s a good chance he had someone on the inside here.  Griff was in prison with him.  He’s the logical one for this man to contact.  Griff has no loyalties here.”

Candy felt Griff tense up behind him.  He had to turn and put his hands on Griff’s shoulders to keep him from bursting into the main room.

Clem, Candy told me it was Griff who turned in the knife that linked this man to . . . .”  Ben couldn’t finish the thought.

“He did.  But the guy probably left the knife to make sure you’d know who’d done this.  Don’t you think it’s quite a coincidence that first Griff was with Candy when they found the . . ..”  Here Clem hesitated, clearly not wanting to use the word “bodies”.   “Burned shack,” he finished instead.  “And then he helped us look for evidence.  And when we didn’t find anything, two days later he brings the knife in.  He might’ve had the knife the whole time as a fallback in case there was nothing left in the fire.  He could be leading Candy into a trap.”

Ben didn’t bother to argue.  He responded simply, “The bottom line is Candy trusts him, so I trust him.  Nothing, I saw of him in that prison or have seen of him here makes me think Candy’s wrong.”  There was a note of finality coupled with weariness in his voice.  But Clem wouldn’t let it drop.

“Well, I’d feel a sight better if Candy stayed here.  We don’t know what this man is capable of or where he is.  Candy’s the best man you’ve got.”

Ben’s voice was surprisingly firm when he came back with, “Then he’s the best one to track down the man who murdered my son.  I’d expected him to go with the posse.  But maybe Candy’s right.  The two of them alone are less likely to be noticed.  More likely to be able to get close enough.”

Ben didn’t realize the argument was Griff’s.  Candy had just been convincing himself by repeating it to Ben.

Candy waited until Clem left before going out to the main room to take his leave of his employer and friend.  Griff had reminded him they needed bills of sale for the six horses because they’d likely need to sell or trade them somewhere along the way.  And, as Griff added almost under his breath, “I wouldn’t want to be arrested for stealing them.”

After making out the bills of sale and setting out an envelope of expense money, Ben handed Candy a badge.  “Clem left this for you.  It won’t carry any authority outside this county but Clem thought it might get you some cooperation from some of the local sheriffs.”  Ben looked over at Griff and started to say something.  Candy gave Griff a sharp look.  He could see a sarcastic remark forming - something to the effect that Clem must have forgotten to bring one for him.  To his credit, Griff stopped himself, perhaps realizing this wasn’t the time for humor, even at his own expense.

As Candy turned to leave, Griff hung back for a moment as though considering something he wanted to say.  Candy was afraid he might have given him credit too soon for holding his tongue.  He gestured impatiently for Griff to follow, but he seemed to have decided what he wanted to say, although he didn’t look too comfortable about saying it.

“Mr. Cartwright?”  Griff started with some hesitation,

Ben looked up wearily but didn’t answer.

“Where’s Jamie?”

Ben gestured vaguely upstairs.  “I think he’s in his room.”  He paused for a minute.  “Or maybe he’s out in the barn with that new horse of his.  Maybe he’s with Jared.  I’ll tell him good-by for you if you want.”

Griff shook his head.  “I know this is none of my business, but I think Jamie needs something from you right now.  He needs to know he’s a blessing not a burden.  Not an unwelcome reminder that you’ve lost your real sons.”

Ben sprang to his feet with more energy than Candy thought he had in him.  “Jamie is just as much my real son as Joseph was.”  He spoke vehemently with genuine anger but Griff didn’t back down.

“Does he know that?  Have you told him?”

“I don’t need to tell him.  He knows.”

Griff didn’t argue.  He turned and walked toward the front door with Candy.

From behind them Ben said.  “Griff.”

Griff stopped and turned toward the desk, his face impassive as Ben spoke.  “Griff” he said again, as though not sure of what to say.  Then he simply said, “Thank you.”

Griff nodded in acknowledgment and again turned to the door.

Ben walked over and clasped Candy’s hand.  “I want the man who killed my son.”  Candy started to give some kind of assurance.  He couldn’t measure his own grief against Ben’s, but he would have been empty inside but for his anger.   He wouldn’t rest until he got the man responsible for killing the man who’d become his brother.

Ben continued,  “But Candy, I want you to understand, I’d rather he get away than have you get hurt.”

Then he held out his hand to Griff and at the same time put the other hand on Griff’s shoulder as though to make it clear he meant what he saying.  “You too, Griff.  You take care.”

Chapter 7

Sunday - May 2

Joe woke again to the endless motion of the fast-moving wagon.  Instinctively he tested the bonds that held him.  Earlier, in a brief period of consciousness, he’d realized his captor had loosened the chains that held him.  Now he had more play in his arms, although no place to move them. It had been a relief to be able to flex his wrists and elbows and move his arms a bit.  He’d discovered that he could flex his bare feet, and even move his legs a little.

He tugged experimentally at the restraints on his wrists.  In the darkness, Joe figured somehow the chain was attached to the top of his prison.  He’d been working at loosening the lynch pin that held the chains to the wagon.  It was a feeble hope at best, but it helped to exercise his cramped muscles and gave the illusion he could manage to escape from the man who held him hostage.

Joe wished he knew how much time had passed.  He was sure his father would have rounded up a search party and was even now on the trail behind him.  If he could just hold out until the posse caught up with them, everything would be all right.

A trickle of sweat ran down his cheek, and he bent his head to wipe the moisture on his shirt, only to realize that he wasn’t wearing one.

Damn!  It’s hot in this box.  Not enough air for breathing.  Wonder if this was what it was like for Pa in the Hell Box at the prison?  He said it was just like being in the fires of Hell.  I’ll bet Griff knows what it was like.  He must have spent some time there too.  Not that he’s said much.  Too secretive.  After all this time, still don’t really know what to think of him.

 God, it’s so hot.

The pounding in his head had eased some, but a persistent thirst was a nagging misery.  It had been a long time since his captor had forced the water down his throat.  The unchanging darkness gave him too much time to think about long cool drinks he’d consumed in the past.  He wanted to lick his dry lips, but the hated gag was still tied tightly around his head.  Putting all thoughts of water out of his head, Joe struggled to force his mind to focus on a plan of escape.

A muffled sound overhead made him strain to listen.  It was a puzzling sound he’d heard often on the interminable trip.  It was almost as if there was a person moving around in the wagon above him.  But Joe had tried banging on the wagon, with no response.  If it was a person, he wasn’t interested in helping the man trapped in the wagon’s belly.

It was with a quick jolt of surprise that Joe realized the wagon had stopped moving.  He strained to hear what was happening.

A posse?  He couldn’t help the surge of hope that rose at the thought.

Stay calm.  Be prepared for anything, he told himself grimly.

He redoubled his efforts to squeeze a wrist through one of the cuffs.  When the pain of his efforts grew too intense, he switched to a brisk tugging in an effort to loosen whatever was holding the chain in place.  It seemed to him that there was a bit more play in the restraints since he’d started his attempts to free himself.

The jangle of keys filtered into the dark tomb and Joe flinched and grew still.  It seemed like he lay for hours while a key was selected and fitted carefully into a lock.  There was the click of the key turning, and the sharper clink of the lock being opened.

Joe felt as if every one of his nerves was screaming with each sound he heard.  The constant darkness combined with the head injury had robbed him of any semblance of his usual jaunty self-confidence.

Steady, Joe!  Don’t let him see he’s got you rattled.

He heard the cover of the wagon’s false bottom being pulled up and screwed his eyes shut at the painful intrusion of the shaft of light from a lantern.  It was all he could do to keep from crying aloud when he felt hands roughly yanking at the chains on his wrists.  The same hands quickly slipped the gag from his mouth, and Joe immediately sucked in his first deep breath of air he could remember taking since the ordeal began.

“Who are you?” he croaked, his dry throat betraying his attempt to sound calm.  “What do you want from me?”

The man didn’t answer, he merely grunted a little as he did something that allowed the chain clamping down Joe’s wrist restraints to release.  He then made sure the restraints were securely fastened to another chain wrapped around Joe’s waist.  When that was done, he moved to the pair at Joe’s ankles.

Joe felt himself being hauled up and out of the compartment and he gasped in shock as he was casually dropped to the ground outside the wagon.  The ankle chains were long enough so that he could stand and walk a pace or two, but not more.

Just like a dog on a chain.

Joe glared his defiance at his tormentor, even though the man’s features remained in the shadows of the lantern light.  The darkness outside the wagon was almost as deep as that in Joe’s prison.  The only difference was the fresh air he gulped in greedily.

A deep-throated bark followed by a fierce growl erupted from the night air, almost at Joe’s elbow.  He flinched away instinctively, turning to see a huge dog chained to the wagon bed.

Just like me.   Joe couldn’t help the thought that surged through his mind as he tried to move away from the dog, who lunged on its chain.  The chain brought the animal up short, and it strained to get at the helpless man in front of him.  In the feeble light, Joe could see the animal’s rough coat, ribs showing through.  His impression that the animal wasn’t a pet was reinforced when the stranger casually clubbed at the dog with a muffled curse.

“Back, dog!”   He rasped.  “Back I said.”

The dog whined in fear and cringed away from its master.  It sank to its haunches, and tried a tentative wag of its tail.  The man kicked out at the animal, his booted foot barely missing the dog’s broad back.  The dog jerked back out of the man’s reach in a practiced move.  He finally slunk to the shadows and lay down, his massive head resting on his front paws, his bright eyes never leaving the two men beside the wagon.

Joe levered himself to his knees, only then realizing he was clad in a dirty pair of long johns.  He eyed them questioningly.  The fit was wrong, and the raw stench of whiskey that rose from them sent a surge of bile rising in Joe’s throat.  He fought back the nausea and using the wagon as a brace, managed to get himself shakily to his feet.  The chains limited his mobility, but he stood proudly on his own two feet and stared defiantly at his captor.

“You killed Walt.  Why didn’t you kill me too?” he asked.

A cold chuckled erupted from the other man.  “You don’t feel dead, Cartwright?  I’ve got papers that say you are.”

Joe struggled to hide his confusion.  “When my father and the posse get a hold of you, they’ll see you hang.   It’d be better for you to let me go now and do your best to escape.”

“All in good time., the stranger replied calmly.  He tossed a half loaf of bread at Joe’s feet.  “Eat up, it’s all you’ll get till this time tomorrow.”

A canteen hit the ground next to the bread.  “You’ve got three minutes, Cartwright, and then it’s back in your box.  If I was you, I’d eat quick.”

Joe glared his defiance at the man, but the gnawing hunger that had been tearing at his belly demanded he accept the food, however grim it looked.  He bent to retrieve the bread and the canteen.  Forcing the stale bread into his mouth, he chewed rapidly, trying to keep from guzzling all the water immediately.  He could see the dog eyeing the food hungrily, but Joe wasn’t tempted to offer the beast anything.  He had just polished off the contents of the canteen and chewed the last morsel of the bread when the stranger casually strolled forward.

“Back to the box, Cartwright.  We got a long way to go.”  He reached out with arms like iron, and grabbed Joe to toss him back into the compartment.

Acting instinctively, Joe struck out with his elbow, attempting to drive the air from the other man’s lungs.  He gauged the success of his thrust by the sudden gasp from his tormentor.  Joe tried to follow up with an uppercut to the man’s chin, but the manacles at his wrist hampered his movements.  It was pathetically easy for the stranger to bring a heavy fist down on the back of Joe’s neck.

Joe dropped like a stone, his world going black in a fraction of second.

Chapter 8

Thursday - May 6

Candy woke from an uneasy sleep at first light.  He’d slept in the saddle before but never four nights in a row.  They’d have to stop for a real night’s rest tonight or they wouldn’t be on top of things when they caught up with Reinhardt.

He watched Griff riding ahead, looking as weary as Candy felt, but driven to keep going by a motivation Candy couldn’t quite figure.   He was the one who’d been close to Joe, not Griff.   When they’d stopped to rest the horses at dusk the night before, Candy had insisted they camp for the night.  He’d gotten a fire started and cooked supper while Griff tended the horses.  But all Griff had done was feed them, rub them down and then switch their saddles from the horses they’d ridden most of the day to another two of the six Griff had insisted they bring along.  It had only been two hours and they were on the road again with Griff determined to take advantage of the moon to keep moving.

So far, it hadn’t been as hard as Candy had feared to track the man Griff called the Wolf.  And moving as fast as they did at Griff’s insistence, maybe they were catching up.  Candy had fully expected him to get rid of the wagon he’d used to fake the accident and transport the bodies to Jenks’ shack.  Switching to horseback would have allowed him to move faster and more anonymously. But in Carson City he’d merely traded a team of exhausted horses for a fresh team.  He must have some kind of injury that prevented him from riding.  Reinhardt had been in Carson City Friday morning, before Cochise had even made his way home.

Candy and Griff had spent Monday morning in Carson City checking the three livery stables.  The guy at the third place had remembered the wolf picture on the wagon.

“But I’d ‘ve remembered that guy anyway,” the rotund man had commented as he’d taken a moment’s respite to lean on his manure fork to talk a little.  “Had the coldest, meanest eyes I ever saw.  Tell the truth, his horses were so winded and lathered up it was hard to judge how sound they were.  I insisted  he sweeten the trade with twenty bucks.  The guy didn’t even bargain.  He just unhitched the two horses from his wagon and hitched up my two.  There was something about those eyes just kept me from chasin’ that extra twenty bucks.  He headed south movin’ fast and I was glad to see ‘im leave despite losin’ out some on the deal.”

As Candy and Griff turned to leave, Charles barked in impatience, anxious to be on his way.  That must have sparked the man’s memory.

“Funny thing.  The guy had a dog with ‘im too.  Didn’t seem like the kind of man who’d want a dog.  Saw ‘im chained in the wagon.  I recognized ‘im ‘cause there was a big ta do ‘round here a few days ago when Ike Callahan’s best milk cow got hamstrung by a dog.  He accused Rand Taylor’s mangy cur.  Said he saw ‘im scootin’ under the fence when he went out to check on the commotion.  Rand didn’t have much use for the dog hisself.  It was mean and usually kept tied up but the minute he got accused, suddenly the dog was a sweet -tempered family pet.”

The man leaned over to ruffle Charles’ fur playfully as though to say he recognized a sweet-tempered dog when confronted with one.

“Rand didn’t want ta pay for the cow I expect.  Ike was gonna get the Sheriff to shoot the dog but I guess this fella took it off his hands.  Anyone else I would’ve warned, but I figured that dog warn’t no meaner than the guy so mebbe they was a good match.”

* * *

It was barely past dawn on Thursday morning when Candy and Griff rode into the little town of Dredd’s Corner.  They quickly found the only livery in town.  It wasn’t open but when they walked around to the living quarters, they found an old man and a girl who looked to be his granddaughter eating breakfast.  The man hadn’t seen a wagon with a wolf painted on it but he was willing enough to show them two wagon horses he’d taken in trade on Tuesday.

The girl offered them some breakfast and Candy was surprised when Griff took her up on it.  It was the first time he’d seen Griff willing to dally for even a few precious minutes.  He followed the old man out to the livery stable and quickly confirmed that the two horses he was shown were the ones described by the owner of the livery in the town they’d passed through the day before.  Then he inspected the paddock where the other horses had been kept, hoping to find a distinctive footprint he could follow.  The old guy hadn’t been much help in describing the man who’d traded for the horses.  Candy guessed that despite being as thick as bottle bottoms, the spectacles he wore weren’t nearly strong enough.

* * *

Griff wasn’t exactly an expert at reading women but he could tell this girl was flirting with him.  Lizzie her grandfather called her, but she’d introduced herself to him as Elsbeth.  She probably didn’t have much chance to practice being a woman on strangers.  She was a cute little thing with bright blue eyes and shiny cornsilk braids.  Couldn’t be more than thirteen.  She’d be a pretty woman in a few years.  Griff saw no harm in encouraging her just enough to get her talking about the man who’d traded the wagon horses.  He suspected she might be more observant than her grandfather.

The little kitchen was inviting.  Griff was tempted to sit down and actually eat the breakfast Elsbeth had invited him to.  But he was afraid if he got too comfortable, he’d just fall asleep.

He stood next to her at the stove as she fried them up some eggs and put some bread in the oven to toast.  He asked her if she’d seen the man who traded the two horses on Tuesday.

“Sure did.  I mostly run that stable.  Grandpa ain’t so spry any more and I’ve got a better head for figures.”  She looked up at Griff as though wondering if he would approve of a girl who was good with numbers.  He gave her an encouraging smile and she went on.  “That man drove up in a wagon wanting to trade his horses for two we’d just gotten in trade for a ridin’ horse I trained up all by myself.”

Griff could see she was looking for approval.  “Pretty slick getting two good wagon horses for one ridin’ horse.  Did this man give you a good price?”

Elsbeth colored at the compliment but didn’t dawdle in answering Griff’s question.  “He just wanted a straight trade.  Grandpa wanted a little money extra ‘cause his horses were used so hard but the guy wouldn’t give any and I think Grandpa was a little scared of him ‘cause he looked so mean.  It turned out okay though.  Once they rested up, the horses he traded us were pretty good ones.  We didn’t lose out.”

This had to be Reinhardt.  “Your grandfather said there wasn’t any picture of a wolf on the wagon.  Do you think he might’ve missed it?”

“Naw, there wasn’t no, I mean any, picture.  It wouldn’t be right to have pictures painted on a prison wagon any how.”

Griff was startled by her description.  “A prison wagon.  What makes you think it was a prison wagon?”

“Well, the man was wearing a uniform like a guard of some kind and there was, I mean were, bars on a side window.  Nobody in it I could see ‘cept a nasty grizzled dog.   He caught me peeking in the window ‘cause the dog barked.  He said he was picking up a prisoner in Barnesville to take to the prison.”

A uniform.  Reinhardt had the nerve to wear the uniform he’d taken off a dead guard and used to aid his escape from the prison.   But where had he traded wagons?

“Did the wagon look like it was freshly painted?”  Damn, what did it mean if he’d changed wagons?

The girl was quick to see where Griff was going with his question.  “Naw, it was a beat up wagon.  I would’ve noticed fresh paint.”

She thought for a minute.  “But there was some rolled up canvas under the roof.  You know, like a window shade.  I figured it was just to shade the window if it got hot or maybe to stop people from getting too curious ‘bout the prisoner.  Could’ve been a wolf painted on it.”

Before he could ask another question, Elsbeth glanced out the window and saw Charles watching the chickens scratching around in the pen near the house.  “Mister, is your dog likely to be taking after my chickens?  I mean I’d be happy to give him an egg or two, but I wouldn’t want him scaring my chickens into not laying for a couple of days.”

Griff smiled a little, but couldn’t quite bring himself to laugh.  “Don’t you worry about Charles.  You couldn’t make him take up chicken chasing for anything.  When he was just a youngster, he squeezed into our cook’s chicken yard and was having a fine old time.  Hop Sing came out banging a big old pan at him and yelling in Chinese.  Scared him to death.”

Griff saw Charles’ look shift to a little black and white cat walking along a corral fence rail.  He hurried to the door and called him.  Griff turned to Elsbeth, “Would it be okay if he came in?  I don’t like the way he’s lookin’ at your cat.  And I guess he could use that egg you said you could spare for him.”

Elsbeth was delighted with the little dog who started begging the minute he smelled cooking going on.  She quickly made him forget whatever designs he had on her cat by filling a bowl with a few stale biscuits moistened with some milk and a couple of eggs.  As she watched Charles eat, Elsbeth asked Griff, “Why didn’t that cook teach him not to chase cats?”

Griff finally decided to sit down.  Wasn’t likely he’d fall off to sleep with this woman-child making constant conversation.  So he sat down in the rocker near the stove and stretched his legs out wearily.  “Hop Sing took Charles’ mind off the chickens by encouraging him to chase the rabbits and squirrels out of his kitchen garden.  Guess he didn’t figure he should discourage him from chasing cats.”

Elsbeth was mildly indignant.  “Cats don’t eat vegetables or tear up gardens.  Billy Sam out there just keeps the mice out of the feed.”

“Oh, it’s not that Hop Sing doesn’t like cats.”  Actually Griff wasn’t sure about this one way or the other.  “But Charles kind of tends to generalize.  Once Hop Sing put the fear of God in him about the chickens, he wouldn’t chase nothin’ with feathers.  I could be starvin’ out on the trail and that fool dog wouldn’t think of scaring up a pheasant or a turkey.  So I expect Hop Sing didn’t want to scare him off cats on the theory he might hold off on the rabbits and squirrels too.”

Elsbeth didn’t seem quite sure Griff was serious and Griff wasn’t about to tell her he just didn’t much care if Charles chased cats.  She folded her arms and looked at him closely, then changed the subject a little.  “What kind of name is Charles for a dog?  Isn’t that kind of snooty?”

Griff glanced outside to where the little black and white cat was sitting on one of the corral posts daintily licking his paw and washing his face.  “No worse than giving a little bit of a cat like that a name like Billy Sam.”

As Elsbeth took the toasted bread out of the oven and flipped the fried eggs over she answered,  “Well, Billy Sam’s got two names cause my grandpa kept calling him something that couldn’t be said in polite company.  So I just used the initials.”

She grinned when she said this and Griff couldn’t help but grin back.

“Well Charles was called a name he didn’t like either.  Girl who was tryin’ to train up him and his sister called him Charlie.  She was real good with dogs and his sister worked out fine, but she just couldn’t seem to interest Charles in workin’ for a living.  So she gave him to me.  Maybe he wanted to be a man’s dog.  Anyways, he worked fine for me and she couldn’t figure it.  So as a joke I told her it was ‘cause I treated him with respect, startin’ with calling him Charles.  So Charles he’s stayed.”

Elsbeth looked at Charles who had finished his bowl of food and was looking up expectantly at her.  “So Charles, what kind of work is it you do?”

When Charles seemed disinclined to answer, Griff answered for him.  “Right now he keeps our extra four horses from straying so we don’t have to be pulling them along.”

Elsbeth snorted a little at this information.  ‘I saw you come in.  He wasn’t doing any herding.  He was riding on top of that horse carryin’ your supplies.”

“You didn’t see any of them wandering off did you?”

Griff heard Candy and the old man step onto the back porch and took the chance to ask one last question.  “You said the guy looked mean.  What made him look mean?”  Her answer reassured him they were following the right man.

“His eyes.  He didn’t have no soul behind his eyes.”

* * *

When Griff declared he didn’t have time to eat at the table,  Elsbeth followed him outside with a couple of fried egg and bacon sandwiches.   Candy had already fed and watered the horses, but Elsbeth insisted on rubbing them down and shifting the saddles while Griff ate and gulped down a cup of coffee.

“That man’s not really a prison guard is he?”

Griff shook his head but didn’t stop chewing.  He hadn’t realized how hungry he was until he took the first mouthful.

“Did he do somethin’ real bad?”

Griff nodded, but again didn’t say anything.  He didn’t want to share any of the grim details.  Not with a child like this.

A few minutes later they were on the road again, each with another sandwich in hand and a bag of oatmeal cookies.   Elsbeth had clearly been disappointed they couldn’t stay longer but she’d been able to help them with something in addition to food.

Candy complained  he hadn’t been able to check any hoof prints because the paddock had been occupied since they were traded off.  Elsbeth was pleased to be able to draw a print in the dirt.  “The red chestnut, his left front shoe is heavier and a little wider in the back.  The man had him hitched up on the right side when he left.”

Candy assured her the information would be useful and Griff figured that for Candy it might be.   Probably wouldn’t have helped him much.  His own biggest value was that he’d recognize Reinhardt when he saw him.  And he hoped to have a drawn gun when he did.

Griff looked back as they nudged their horses into a fast trot to get through the town.  Elsbeth was waving after them and he waved back.  He hoped he and Candy would both make it through this journey alive and come back through this little town.  He’d like to be able to tell that girl she’d helped bring down the man with no soul behind his eyes.

* * *
The road stretched through three small towns.  No one at the liveries had spoken with the man with the hard eyes, but he’d gone into the general store for provisions in the second town.  The storekeeper didn’t remember what he’d bought, but he remembered the man’s eyes.  His wife had started to get the man’s order but then gone into the back room to fetch him, insisting he take over.  She was too frightened to come out until he left.  She hadn’t been able to say why, but Griff understood.
At the third town, pretentiously called Diamond City, Candy insisted they stop for the night.   When Griff adamantly refused, Candy knew it was time for a little confrontation.  He was sure now  Griff was motivated by more than the need to bring Joe’s killer to justice.  Griff must have something personal at stake.  Candy thought it needed to be put out on the table so when they did face down Reinhardt, he wouldn’t be distracted with the worry Griff would do something foolish out of a burning need to put the first bullet in Reinhardt.

They’d stopped at the livery stable as they did in every town.  Candy paid to have their horses fed and rubbed down but when he’d started to pay for stalls for the night, Griff stopped him.  “We won’t be staying.”

Candy told the man they’d be back and dragged Griff off to the nearest saloon that offered meals.

They sat down at a back table and ordered steak and potatoes – the only thing on the menu.  The girl who’d taken their order brought over their beers first.  Griff took a big swig of the weak beer then leaned back in his chair looking exhausted.  Candy spoke quietly but firmly.  “Griff, look at yourself.  You need a decent night’s sleep as much as I do.”

Griff stayed slumped in his chair.  Candy hoped that was a sign he’d concede.  But Griff merely looked at Candy, his blue-gray eyes weary but steady and said quietly, “No. We’re catching up.  He has to stop at night, at least for a few hours.  We can’t afford to fall behind now by doing the same.  We don’t need to and we won’t.  We’ll sell off the two weakest horses and buy a couple new ones.  Looks like the guy at the livery had a couple of good head.”

Candy sighed.  He’d have to root out the source of this obstinacy.  “Griff, you’ve been keeping something about Reinhardt inside yourself since we started.  This is more to you than chasing down a killer.  I’m going to be facing him down with you.  I need to know what you’re holding back.”

Candy could see the indecision on Griff’s face as though he was struggling with something.

“You don’t have to give me any details about what Reinhardt did to you.  But I have to know what’s driving you so hard because it could cost me my life somewhere down this bad road.”

It was Griff’s turn to sigh.  “You won’t believe me.  It’s not even something I believe.  Just something I feel.”

“Try me.”  Candy wondered what terrible thing had happened to this boy in prison that he didn’t think Candy would believe.  He knew well the suffering men imprisoned together could inflict on each other.  Likely whatever Griff had to say wouldn’t be surprising at all.

But it was.

Chapter 9

Thursday, May 6

Joe stared at the unappetizing bowl of beans.  Partially burned and the consistency of mush, they were about as enticing as eating a pair of old boots.  But the never-ending hunger made him dig his spoon into the mess.

Once they’d been traveling for a few days, the stranger apparently felt confident that stopping for a fire and a hot meal wasn’t a danger.  The tempting aroma of roasting meat wafted through the air.  Joe’s stomach growled loudly, and his mouth filled with saliva.  He knew what would happen next.  The same scenario had been repeated the last several nights.

The stranger licked each finger with a loud slurping noise and sat back with a sigh of contentment.  He looked thoughtfully at the remains of the rabbit; almost a quarter of the meat remained uneaten.

“How’re the beans, Cartwright?” he called.  “Want to finish this?”  He held up the plate of rabbit meat and waved it under Joe’s nose.

Joe averted his eyes and said nothing.   The first couple of times the stranger had played this game, his hopes for a decent meal had risen, and his stomach had answered for him.  The loud, gurgling rumbles had provided his captor with a fierce amusement.  Now he worked to suppress any reaction; his pride demanded he show no weakness.

The man turned and threw the carcass to the dog that had been whining softly from his place by the wagon.  The rabbit disappeared in a couple of mouthfuls, and the dog looked hopefully for more.

Joe kept his eyes on the bowl of beans and forced down another mouthful.  He glanced up to find the man gazing at him with knowing eyes.  Joe had the sudden feeling  this stranger could see his every thought and knew just how badly Joe wanted to beg for the meat.   He flushed with shame, and shoveled the rest of the beans in his mouth to prove to them both he couldn’t care less what he was fed.  As long as he was eating something, he’d stay alive.

Echoing his thoughts, the stranger chuckled softly.  “Still think you’re alive, Cartwright?” he asked.  “Expecting your pa and that posse any minute now, ain’t you?”

Joe returned his glance with a steady look.  “They’ll get here.  My father won’t rest until he gets me back.”

The stranger waved a handful of newspapers in Joe’s face.  “I guess you won’t be wanting to read your obituary then?”  He made a big show of scrutinizing the lead article of the paper.  “Says here you were the son of a prominent man and well known in your own right.  What’d you do that made you so well known?”

Joe looked down at his plate, unwilling to play the man’s games.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he muttered.

Tiring of the game, the man tossed the newspapers in Joe’s lap.  “Read for yourself.  I figured it was time to let you know there won’t be any rescue.  You’re dead, Cartwright, as far as anyone knows.  You’re in my control, and there won’t be anyone looking for you.”  He turned away to build up the fire, leaving Joe with the papers.

When he was sure the man wasn’t watching, Joe scanned the headlines.  As he read, the color drained from his face.

Joe Cartwright Perishes in Mysterious Blaze
Sheriff Suspects Foul Play
Joe Cartwright, son of prominent Nevada rancher Ben Cartwright, died today in a fire of suspicious origins near his native Virginia City. Also dead in the fire, Walt Johnson, a long time ranch hand at the Ponderosa Ranch.

Joe read in horror about the death of one of Virginia City’s leading citizens.  The mention of funeral plans brought his father’s face vividly to mind.  No longer worried about himself, he could only think of his father, still grieving for Hoss almost two years after his death.  What would this final blow do to him?  His hopes for rescue died a quick death with the words in the newspaper.  Mention of the lack of suspects caused him to shoot a quick glance at his captor who now lounged by the fire.  He knew the man was watching his every move and Joe schooled his face to blandness.

“My father won’t believe a word of this.  He’ll know it’s a put-up job.”  Joe’s voice was steady, and he held his head high.

The stranger sat up a little straighter.  “Keep believing that, Cartwright.  Your funeral was held Sunday.   I read there was quite a crowd.  Your Pa often hold funerals for men he thinks are alive?”

Joe regretted eating the beans as he fought back a sudden nausea.  Sitting silently, he continued to read, his father’s grief leaping from every word on the page.

It’s not true, Pa.  I’m still alive.  Don’t believe it.

He longed to scream and let his fists smash his captor’s smirking face into a pulp, but held down by the weight of the chains on his wrists and ankles, he could only sit and seethe in silence.

Lifting his head suddenly, he stared directly into the stranger’s cold eyes.  “I’ll find some way to kill you for what you’ve done.  I don’t know how and I don’t know when.  But you’re a marked man.”

The other man surged to his feet, his face reflecting the fierce anger that burned within him.  “Back in your hole, Cartwright.  I hold all the cards.  You stay alive only if I want you to.  If I decide you die, then you’ll die.  You can make all the threats you want.  They won’t do you any good.”

He hauled Joe up and forced him back into the hated compartment.  As the panel came down over him and sealed him into the stifling tomb, Joe felt very much like the dead man his father believed him to be.

I’ll come home, Pa.  I promise.  I’ll kill him and then come home.

Chapter 10

Thursday - May 6

Griff leaned forward on the table, locking his eyes on Candy’s, looking for the words to answer his question.

"I think maybe Joe’s still alive.”

 Once started, Griff’s words tumbled out as though kept  suppressed too long.

“His body was identified by the metal items left with it.  And ‘cause Walt was dead there with him.  But where’s Jenks?  He was seen with Reinhardt but no one we’ve talked to since we’ve been tailing him saw a second man.  And Jenks was about Joe’s height.  Much skinnier, but burned down to the bones, who’d know it wasn’t Joe?”

For just a moment Candy had a surge of hope -- a white hot spike melting the ice that had frozen every emotion except cold hate since the moment he’d seen his friend’s tortured body.  And just as quickly it vanished, leaving only the hate intact, some of it now directed at Griff.

He banged his fist on the table so hard his beer glass bounced off the edge.  He hardly noticed the sound of it shattering next to his chair.

“You’re a damn fool Griff.   That’s what’s been driving you so hard.   I knew it wasn’t getting justice for Joe.   Not protecting the rest of his family.  Not killing that filthy bastard for burning Joe alive in that stinking shack.   But I figured at least we shared the hate.”

He stood and reached across the table, grabbing a handful of Griff’s shirt.   He yanked the unresisting boy to his feet, pulling him forward until their faces were inches apart.   “But it’s just some kind of fool notion you could be a hero -- bring home the rich man’s son.  Get a reward, get off parole maybe.”

Candy pushed him back in his chair.   Indecision had replaced the conviction in Griff’s eyes.   Candy felt the anger drain out of him.  He sat down heavily.  Leaning back in his chair, he closed his eyes.  “Sorry Griff.   I’m just so damned tired.  Shouldn’t be taking it out on you.”

And he shouldn’t.  Griff wasn’t much more than a kid, barely five years older then Jamie.   Prison had taken away his freedom; parole was giving it back in small pieces.  Building up some notion of rescuing Joe was his way of trying to snatch it back in one big chunk.  He couldn’t know how much dangling that futile little hope in front of Candy would hurt.    Seven days hadn’t been long enough to come to terms with the death of someone he’d spent seven years getting to know, to trust and even to love.   How could Griff know that?   He hadn’t lived free long enough to have that kind of bond with anyone.

Griff was talking again.  Candy rubbed his eyes wearily.  Why didn’t he just shut up?  Candy cut him off.   “Reinhardt blames Joe’s father for his brother’s hanging.  It’s the Cartwrights he hates.  Even if he had some reason to kill Jenks, he had no reason to torture him.  He’d ‘ve just bashed his skull in like he did Walt’s. Joe’s body was unrecognizable because burning him alive was the worst death he could think of.  He didn’t leave a ransom note.  He had no other reason to keep Joe alive.”

“That’s just it.  He did.”

Candy steeled himself against the hurt this time.  He’d let Griff talk himself dry.

“Reinhardt didn’t like quick revenge.  Sometimes men would die, but not right away.   He liked taking little pieces first -- of a man’s body, of his soul.  And a man weak enough to love something -- he’d destroy it.”

“You know all this from a few months  in the same cell block?”

He’d been there seven or eight years.  He was talked about.   Men in prison don’t have much.   Reinhardt took what they had.  One guy, he had nothin’ but a little picture of his wife.  Kept it with him all the time.  Looked at it every night.  Talked to it.  Reinhardt burned it -- a little piece at a time.”

Candy interrupted.  “Joe was what his father loved.  He took him, leaving the memory of the pain he must have suffered.  That fits his pattern.  He left the knife so everyone would know who did it.”

“But there’s something better than that.”

“Better than murdering Ben Cartwright’s son?”

“Murdering him twice.”

“What the blazes is that supposed to mean?”  Candy didn’t want to talk about Joe any more.  He just wanted Griff to shut up for the rest of this hellish trip.

“Say Jenks died in Joe’s place.  Everyone thinks it’s Joe – pain’s the same as if it was him.  Then a month or two later, a coffin gets shipped to the Ponderosa.  Joe’s body inside, fresh killed, tortured maybe.  Now Mr. Cartwright knows . . . .”

Candy stopped him.  “I see.”  He didn’t want to see.  The only thing he wanted to see was Reinhardt bleeding in the dirt.   “You’ve got nothing to support this.  Nothing but your idea of some worse thing Reinhardt could do.”

“The wagon, Candy.  The wagon.  Why didn’t he just burn Joe in the wagon?  You figured he used the wagon to stage an accident or some kind of distraction.  Why risk taking them to Jenk’s place.  There’s lots of deadfall in the woods off that old stage road.  Why not just douse the wagon with kerosene, throw on more wood and let it burn there.  And after a week, he still has the wagon.  Why something so conspicuous?  Why not just get on a horse and ride for the border?

Candy wanted to believe Griff, but it was just wishful thinking.

 But the wagon.  Why the wagon?

Candy leaned back and closed his eyes again.  Joe alive?  Did it make sense?

Griff offered only one last argument.  “Candy, I don’t have proof.  If I’d had anything but a feeling before we left, I’d have told you, even if it wasn’t enough to get Mr. Cartwright’s hopes up.  But seeing he still has the wagon, that’s enough for me.  Enough for someone who spent months in fear watching what gave the man pleasure.  I still can't prove it, but if there’s the slightest chance . . . “

And that’s what decided Candy.  That’s all he needed to justify Griff’s manic pace.  A chance his friend was alive.  He pushed back in his chair, stood up and intercepted the woman bringing their dinner.  He paid her and took the plates.  “We’ll give the boy at the livery a nickel to bring them back.  We’ve got to get movin’.”

Half an hour later they were riding two fresh horses.  With Charles keeping watch on the other four they’d kept, they were making good time.  They’d almost satisfied their hunger eating on the walk to the livery and while negotiating for the two new horses.  Charles had eaten the rest while they saddled up.  Candy suspected the dog’s belly was a lot closer to being full than theirs, but right now he was buoyed by the thought that maybe they were looking for a live man, not cold revenge.  Maybe Joe was alive.  He accepted Griff’s urgency and it drove him as well.

Candy also understood why Griff had been so adamant that they not telegraph the towns ahead for the law to be on the look-out for Reinhardt.  He’d explained the Wolf would be dangerous when cornered.  He’d kill without hesitation and the towns Reinhardt had picked for his route were much too small to have experienced lawmen, if indeed they had any lawmen at all.   That explanation had convinced Candy.  But now he realized  it was not only the lives of anyone who accosted him that were at risk.  A man as focused on revenge as Reinhardt wouldn’t leave Joe alive if he felt threatened.  Joe would be the first to die.

Friday - May 7

By morning they’d reached Banshee Wells.  By their reckoning they’d gone enough distance that Reinhardt should have bought a fresh team.  But they couldn’t find anyone in town who’d sold any horses in the past few days.  Maybe there was nothing suitable in this dry little dot on the map.  That might slow him down.

They’d been unsure of which way to head out.  The main road led south across the river into Arizona.  A side road led west a day and a half’s ride into a valley of small ranchers and farmers.  They would have gone south but for the information they’d gotten from Elsbeth.  Candy found a set of prints that matched those Elsbeth had drawn in the dirt for them.  A horse with three regular shoes and one thicker in the back.  They were headed west.  And they were fresh.  The man was close, maybe as close as a day’s ride.

Candy and Griff left their six horses in the corral attached to the ramshackle barn that passed for a livery on the south end of town.  The man who ran it was sitting in the shade smoking, a bottle by his side.  So they found a boy who seemed interested when they offered to pay him if their horses were in top shape when they got back.  The boy also told them where to find a man who could sell them a couple of fresh horses.

They carried the supplies they’d need for three or four days’ ride along with plenty of ammunition for their revolvers and rifles.  They also packed some of the medical supplies they’d brought from home but hoped they wouldn’t need.  Then they rode hell bent, stopping only occasionally to check the tracks.  If Reinhardt was headed for that little valley, it could be where he intended to stop and carry out his plans for Joe.  They had to make sure he didn’t have the chance to start.

They rode hard all day.  That afternoon they passed a farmer and his family going into town for supplies.   Early that morning the family had seen a bearded man driving a wagon that looked to them like a peddler’s wagon.  They hadn’t seen either a barred window or a picture of a wolf, but the window could have been on the other side of the wagon; and the horses were a black bay and a red chestnut just like those described by Elsbeth and her grandfather.

When darkness fell, they were forced to slow down.  But they were only two days past full moon and had enough light to pick their way in the dark.

Saturday - May 8

They rode slowly all night, stopping for no more than 15 or 20 minutes at a time every few hours to water and rest the horses.  It was two hours past first light when they saw the wagon below them on the steep road.  It was slowly winding its way down the steep road into the valley, using the switchbacks that made the road passable by wagon.  And it was drawn by a dark bay and a red chestnut.

Now was the time to take care.   Reinhardt wanted Joe to die slowly, but if he was cornered, he’d shoot him.   No way Reinhardt wouldn’t take Joe down with him.   It wasn’t in his nature to leave Ben Cartwright with anything but a second corpse to bury in his son’s grave.

Candy checked the area carefully, using his binoculars.  It looked like there was a way to go cross-country, circle around the main road and come up in front of the wagon.  Reinhardt didn’t know he was being followed.  If Griff stayed to the side, out of Reinhardt’s field of vision, he wouldn’t be recognized.  The man wouldn’t have any reason to suspect someone coming at him from the valley ranches.  They could get close enough to take him before he could do Joe any harm.  Or any further harm, Candy corrected himself.  Joe had been with the man over a week.

It took them more than two hours to get down low enough to come out on the road, well in front of the wagon.  The rocky slopes were treacherous with loose skree.  Halfway down Candy’s horse took an almost fatal misstep and fell.  Candy managed to avoid being rolled on but the horse wasn’t going to be moving fast any time soon.   Not hurt bad enough to destroy, but bad enough to be useless for a good while.  Candy and Griff looked at each other wearily.   It was the first time having a back-up horse was vital and they’d decided to travel light.  There was nothing to be done but for Candy and Griff to take turns walking the rest of the way.  Neither was rested enough to make that a welcome chore.  And now they had only one horse to take them out of the valley.  But that wouldn’t a problem if they stopped the man here.  Everything would end here, one way or another.

They came out on the road ahead of the wagon, but not by much.  Candy took Griff’s horse and placed himself so it would look like he was just another resident of the valley going to town.  He would keep his horse far to the right side of the road at an angle so the man wouldn’t see the drawn revolver in his right hand.  He’d shoot the driver if he offered any resistance.  And Candy hoped he would.  Griff would crouch behind the rocks to the left side and make himself known, rifle at ready once Candy stopped the wagon.

Everything went as planned.   Or so it seemed.  The bearded man driving the wagon halted the horses when Candy gave him the choice of stopping the wagon or stopping a bullet.

Chapter 11

Saturday - May 8

The wagon lurched to a stop.  Joe jerked himself out of the light doze he stayed in most of the time despite the rapid, bone-jarring pace of the horses pulling the wagon.  Muffled voices sounded outside and he strained to hear what was happening. He felt a giddy surge of hope.  Had a posse found him?  He wanted to shout in exultation.

I knew Pa wouldn’t believe I was dead!  Offered a big reward for my safe return.  Someone figured this guy out.

He repeatedly thumped his elbow on the side of the wooden compartment, not caring that it sent a throbbing pain all the way to his shoulder.  In the wagon above him, the dog set up a deep-voiced barking.  Joe knew that his feeble attempts to draw attention to his whereabouts would go unheard.

Doesn’t matter. As soon as they take the guy down, they’ll shut the dog up and I can bang again. I’ll be on my way home soon.

The roar of a shotgun blast filled the air and Joe tensed, his blood running cold.  It was followed rapidly by a rifle shot.  He heard a soft thud as a bullet buried itself in the wagon’s side.   The shotgun bellowed again at almost the same instant the rifle fired a second time.  Then silence.

Kill him! Kill him!

He gloried in the murderous rage that filled his thoughts.  This man had killed Walt in cold blood and put his father through Hell. He deserved to die.

The din of the dog barking again shattered the eerie silence.   Then with a sharp yelp and a last soft whine, the dog was quiet.  He heard nothing for long minutes.  With a lurch, the wagon started forward again, quickly settling into the familiar rhythm. Joe’s heart sank and he sagged in sudden fear and disappointment. What had happened?

The constant motion of the wagon taunted him, and he lay rigid in shock. When the movement stopped, he waited with his heart in his mouth. The sound of the key in the padlock and the lifting of the lid sounded overly loud to his ears.  He stared at the widening streak of dim light as the covering was pulled back.

The gloating face of his abductor appeared.  His rough hands yanked down the bandanna tied tightly around Joe’s mouth. Impatient fingers tugged the wadded-up rag from inside his mouth and a canteen was held to his lips. Joe drank deeply; knowing if he didn’t the man would just hold his nose and force the water into him anyway. He was being kept alive for some reason the stranger hadn’t seen fit to share.

Joe desperately wanted to ask what had happened.  But if his desperation showed, the man wouldn’t answer.   Better to keep his mouth shut and whatever pride he had left intact.  His captor stared down at him, a knowing smile playing on his lips. The cold eyes pierced his soul and read his every thought.  Drawing out the silence, he gloated over his helpless victim.

At long last he spoke. ”Funny thing, Cartwright. They sent a posse after all.  Seems like your Pa put up a $10,000 dollar reward for the capture of the man who killed his son.”

The man waved a ragged piece of paper in Joe’s face.  Joe squinted in the dim light, trying to make out the words, not wanting to read it, but unable to tear his eyes away.

REWARD $10,000
Wolfgang Reinhardt
Convicted murderer escaped from Nevada State Prison. 
Wanted for the murder of Joe Cartwright.
6'2", medium build
Gray streaked dark hair & beard
Light brown eyes.
If caught or killed contact:
Virginia City Sheriff’s Office or Nevada State Prison

Reinhardt chuckled mirthlessly. “I’ll have to admit they made better time than I expected.  Guess that kind of money is powerful incentive for most men.  Too bad that posse split up.  Wonder why they did that?  Maybe they didn’t want to split the reward.”

He laughed, the sound so chilling that Joe felt the skin crawl on his arms.

“Did they really think only two men could take me down,” he mused, his eyes dancing with an unholy glee.

“Couldn’t see one of them too good; rising sun got in my eyes, but that didn’t stop me from cutting him down with my shotgun.  Caught the blast full in the face so now no one will know what he looked like.  The other one had black hair and light eyes. Wore a red shirt, black leather vest, had a strong face.  Medium  height.  Know anyone like that, Cartwright?”

Joe’s heart sank, and despair filled him.   Candy!  Dead?  He killed Candy. Oh, God, who was with him?  Pa?  Did he kill my father? Steady, Joe. He’s just tormenting you.  Don’t let him get under your skin.  It couldn’t have been Pa.  He wouldn’t have left Jamie alone.  Probably wasn’t Candy.  Hold on.

He shut his eyes to block out the sight of the cruel face that leered at him. The man’s laugh sounded harsh in ears, and Joe struggled to keep a stoic face. He didn’t want the stranger to see how much the words had destroyed his confidence.

Ignore him, Joe!  Don’t let him get to you.  It wasn’t Pa.  It can’t have been.  Not Candy either.  Please not Candy.

Keeping up a steady litany of words in his head, he was able to keep his face completely without expression. At last, deprived of his fun, the stranger cursed and ruthlessly shoved the rag back in Joe’s mouth. With curt fingers, he knotted the bandanna as tightly as he could, driving the rag in even deeper. The fight to keep from choking gave Joe something to concentrate on as the lid to his prison banged shut.

He was left alone in the darkness.  When he was sure he was no longer being observed, he allowed the grief to overwhelm him. Candy dead,  maybe his father. It was too much to absorb, so Joe let his thoughts turn to revenge. He was strengthened by the hatred that swept through him in a hot flush.

I’ll kill him for you, Pa.  I’ll settle the score for you Candy.

He barely noticed when the interminable ride began again; his thoughts were swirling with dizzying force.  Reinhardt.  Where had he heard that name before?  He latched onto the question to give himself something to focus on besides his grief.  Reinhardt.

Reinhardt!  I know that name.  That bank robbery about eight years ago.  Pa was caught in the middle of it, gut shot.  Hoss and I were sure he wasn’t going to make it, even though Doc Martin swore he’d pull through.  The bank teller, Bill Phelps, was killed outright. Poor Suzy Phelps was expecting their first child.  She had the baby just after the hanging.  She went back East to live with her mother, I think.

Wasn’t that fella named Reinhardt?  The one they hung.  Hoss and I rode on the posse.  We got all of them, except for the one they figured was the leader of the whole gang.  We split the posse and Hoss rode with the boys who caught up with a man named Reinhardt and another guy.  My group caught a couple more.  They were all hard men.  No one would talk, so we weren’t sure there was anyone else.

He’d been at the trial.  That Reinhardt looked a lot like this guy, except the eyes were frightened, not cold like these.  He didn’t want to hang.   But they had to hang him because he was the one who killed the clerk.  It was Pa’s eyewitness testimony  put a noose around his neck.   This Reinhardt must be the one who got away; he’s related somehow to the man we hung in Virginia City.  He got away then, but must have gotten caught for something else.  He was in prison for something.  He hates Pa.  For his brother?  Or son?  He must have cared for the guy to carry a grudge this long.

Would a man carry a grudge that long?  Maybe.  I remember riding with that posse and wanting to kill the men we caught, because of what they did to Pa and poor Bill Phelps.  If my father had died, would I still be chasing after the gang leader?  Maybe.  Hatred warps a man’s soul, according to Pa.

It was a relief to have something different to think about. Knowing who his captor was made the man more human, less like a wild animal.  Reinhardt had cared for someone.   Were those feelings still buried in him or had prison burned all vestiges of humanity out of him?  Joe remembered the remote eyes and shuddered.  He seemed capable of anything.  And he’d focused so much hatred on his father.

Escape.  I’ve got to get out of here.  Reinhardt will go after Pa as soon as he thinks he’s taken care of me.  Or maybe Jamie.  I’ve got to get out of this somehow.  They think I’m dead.  I’m on my own for this one.  That’s it, no one but me.  Think.  Make a plan.

Joe began to work on the chains that held him with renewed strength.  He had a mission now.  He was going to escape and kill Reinhardt before the embittered man had a chance to go after his father and brother.

Chapter 12

Saturday - May 7

Griff tried to stop his hands from shaking as he came out of hiding, rifle at ready – ready if he could hold it steady.   He kept a nervous eye on the bearded driver who brought the wagon to a quick halt at Candy’s order.  He concentrated on the man’s hands.   He’d have a gun close by.  Griff knew they would have to kill Reinhardt.  The man would never allow himself to be taken alive.  He didn’t care who fired the fatal shot.  In fact, he’d be happy to leave it to Candy.  He just wanted it to be over.  He needed to stay ready so he could fire at the slightest hint the Wolf was reaching for a gun, but keep calm enough that Candy didn’t get caught in a cross-fire.

As the driver’s hands moved, Griff’s finger tightened on the trigger.  When the man raised his hands above his head at Candy’s order, Griff wasn’t assured.  He was only trying to put them off-guard by appearing to cooperate.  The Wolf would never give up.  But when the man spoke, Griff was confused.

“Hey, mister take what ya want.  But I ain’t got no cash.   Won’t ‘til I sell this lot down the valley there.”

It wasn’t the placating words that disconcerted Griff.   He’d expected that.  It was the timbre of the voice.  It was the tremulous voice of a frightened old man.  Not a man in his fifties trying to sound older, but a weak voice that sounded all too genuine.   That could mean Reinhardt was hidden in the wagon.  Hidden where he could kill Joe if cornered.  Kill them all if given the chance.

Griff signaled to Candy.  Although he kept his gaze centered on the driver, Griff knew Candy was watching him out of the corner of his eye.  Griff pointed at the driver and shook his head.  Then he gestured toward the back of the wagon and walked that way as quietly as he could.

His hands were trembling as he reached for the latch to the little door in the back of the wagon.  He could imagine the Wolf crouching back there waiting for him.  He hoped the man’s attention would be on the dialogue between Candy and the driver.  But he couldn’t count on it.  He took a deep breath, snatched the door open and took a quick look as he spun from one side of the opening to the other.   Nothing.  Or rather too much.  The wagon was filled with boxes and barrels and he thought he saw a small bunk on the left side.

When there was no reaction to the open door, he dared take a longer look.  Still nothing obvious.  But a man could be hidden amidst the boxes somewhere.

Griff backed off and walked to the side of the wagon, keeping enough distance so he would know if anyone tried to exit from the rear.  There was a roll of canvas at the roof of the wagon, but no barred window like the one described by the girl.  And no dog.

He heard Candy asking the man where he’d gotten the horses.  The man explained that he’d planned to spend Tuesday in Banshee Wells, doing some selling and spending the night before heading for the little valley.  Just before he got into town, he’d been passed by a man using his horses hard.  The man had stopped and offered to trade horses.

“Mebbe “offered” ain’t the right word.  Somethin’ ‘bout the way the guy asked said I could’ve had a problem iffen I refused.  Turned out his horses was tired but mebbe a little better ‘en mine.  Since I was gonna give ‘em a day’s rest anyways, I guess I didn’t have nothin’ ta complain about as it turned out.  But I figger even if one of ‘em hadda been lame, I’d ’ve made the trade anyways.  He just wasn’t the kinda man ta say no ta.  I was glad when I didn’t see ‘im in town.  But I hadn’t ‘spected ta.  He was anxious ta move out.  He’d ’ve been across the river before I even pulled in.”

Griff believed him.  Once he’d had a good look at the man, he knew there was no chance this was the Wolf in disguise.  Of course, Reinhardt could be back there holding a gun on him but the guy talked like he’d had a scare, not like he was scared now.  Or at least not like he was scared of anyone but Candy, who was still had a gun leveled at his heart.

Candy was also convinced things had gone badly wrong.  But he erred on the side of caution and held his gun at ready while Griff carefully searched the wagon.  Nothing but trade goods and the man’s personal belongings.

The excitement of getting close to the end of their quest had given Candy the energy to pull off this ambush.   And now -- nothing -- nothing but pure fatigue.   No Joe, no Reinhardt.  They’d ended up at least three or four days behind when they’d been sure they were catching up.   He had Joe’s life in his hands and he’d let him down.  Part of him wanted to cuss a blue streak in frustration, but mostly he wanted to close his eyes and succumb to the overwhelming despair.   A look at Griff told him he couldn’t indulge in that luxury.

Griff had unrolled the canvas on the side of the wagon.  No pictures of any kind.  It was an awning the peddler used for shade when he set up his wagon as a temporary store.  And that’s when Griff started to unravel.  Candy could see it in his eyes and the way his body sagged.  By coming on this hunt and then participating in this ambush, Griff had faced a fear that might have overwhelmed him but for his belief that Joe might be alive.   It had taken everything he’d had to get to this confrontation; he had nothing left.  It would be up to Candy to hold him together.

That decided Candy on his next move.   They were still a few hours away from the valley ranches where he might hope to replace his injured horse.  The only other option was to use one of the wagon horses to ride back to Banshee Wells - leaving the old man stranded.  But the wagon horses were tired and Griff’s horse even more so after their 24-hour ride culminating in that scramble down the loose shale.  And like it or not, he and Griff needed some real rest to regain the strength to push on.   They couldn’t expect to make it on will alone.

He went over to where the boy sat slumped against the wagon.  He crouched down and put a hand on Griff’s shoulder until he raised his head and looked him in the eye.  “I’m going to ride into the valley with this guy and get me another horse, two if I can find them.  No point in you moving from here.  You bed down here off the side of the road.  Your horse can get some rest in case I can’t find a second one.  Let Charles watch out for trouble.  You get some sleep.”

Griff didn’t even argue.  That told Candy he’d read him right.  He was done in, physically and emotionally.  He let Candy haul him to his feet and lead him and his horse to a clearing a dozen yards off the road.  Together they unsaddled the horse and laid out Griff’s bedroll.  A backward look told him, Griff was asleep before Candy made it back to the wagon.

The peddler had agreed to drive Candy at least as far as his first stop.   He didn’t seem to be doing it out of fear either.  In fact, once he realized why they’d stopped him at gunpoint, he was sympathetic.  Apparently it had been less frightening to look down the barrel of Candy’s gun than to look into the eyes of Reinhardt the Wolf.

Chapter 13

 Saturday - May 8

The Wolf flicked the reins impatiently, a feral gleam in his eye. The horses caught a hint of the strong emotion he radiated and picked up the pace.  He rubbed a hand over his smooth-shaven cheeks.  He missed his beard.  He hadn’t been without it since he was a stripling kid.  Oh well, there’d be plenty of time to grow it back once he reached Mexico.  It had been stiff and scratchy anyway with that dye he’d put in it before he arrived in Virginia City and began mingling with the locals.

Good thing he’d spent time in the saloons of Virginia City. The information he’d picked up there had been invaluable. He’d actually managed to drink a beer at Candy’s elbow one night after someone had mentioned the man was the Cartwrights’ foreman. His description had certainly unnerved the prisoner in the wagon. A nasty grin streaked across the Wolf’s face. It was obvious Cartwright believed his friend was dead. It was one more way to keep him off balance.

His grin faded when he thought of the two wet-behind-the-ears deputies who thought they could get away with stopping  Wolf Reinhardt. They wouldn’t make that mistake again – or any other. That second deputy hadn’t even been able to shoot straight once his friend was killed. He’d only managed to fire those two shots out of nervous reflex. There hadn’t been a prayer they’d hit anything. The second barrel of the shotgun had taken him out of the saddle quick enough.

It had given him quite a jolt to find that wanted poster in the pocket of one of the deputies.  He hadn’t realized how quickly they’d be on his trail.  Someone in Virginia City had put the pieces together too fast for comfort. It was a lucky thing he’d run into those deputies.  Not only had he been alerted to the early pursuit, but he’d picked up a lawman’s badge along with the poster.  It couldn’t hurt to have one of those in case someone started asking nosy questions.

Again he flicked the reins and urged the horses onward. The journey was taking too long and his patience was wearing thin.  He itched to set the rest of his plan in motion.  Ben Cartwright would suffer a thousand times over when he saw how his son had really died.  The old man would hate himself for failing to see through that simple trick with the alkie’s burned body.  Ben Cartwright was going to suffer his son’s death over and over again, until he lost his mind with grief and guilt.

He’d been right to take on Cartwright first.  The ease with which he took revenge on such a powerful man would garner attention in five or six states.  The others on his list would cower in their beds or even go into hiding.  But he’d find them.  He’d find them all.

Chapter 14

Sunday, early morning - May 9

It was well past dark when Candy made his way back to where he’d left Griff.  He’d been gone over six hours.  He hadn’t found any horses for sale but had managed to find one a farmer was willing to rent  on condition he’d leave it at the livery in town and pay the farmer up front for the livery charges for the week before he was due to go to town.   The man also took the injured horse.  He might have been able to find a couple to buy at another spread in the valley but he couldn’t risk the time.  This horse had only to get them back to Banshee Wells where they had better horses waiting.

Charles came to greet him as he walked to where Griff had bedded down.  He lifted the little lantern he carried but the light didn’t wake Griff.   Nor did the nickering of the two horses as they greeted one another.    Candy debated on whether to rouse him and get them on the road.  That’s what his heart wanted to do.  But this boy who’d learned to sleep light and nervous in prison had let his fatigue and disappointment drop him into a deep sleep.  He’d had only six hours to make up for a week of snatches of sleep in the saddle -- it probably wasn’t enough.   Candy himself had only managed to grab three in the peddler’s bunk.  So Candy unsaddled his rented horse and laid out his own bedroll.  He succumbed to badly needed sleep before he could decide if he’d made the right decision.

When Griff woke him at first light, Candy figured he’d done right.  His energy clearly renewed, Griff had the horses fed, his own saddled, the campfire out and everything packed up.  He handed Candy a cup of coffee and some pan biscuit/bacon sandwiches.  As soon as Candy got up, Griff grabbed his saddle and bedroll and had Candy’s horse ready to go.   Most important in Candy’s mind, the determination was back in Griff’s eyes.  The minute he’d saddled Candy’s horse, Griff was on his own, holding the reins of the other out to Candy, clearly expecting him to finish his breakfast on the road.  As Candy swung into the saddle, Griff urged his horse into a fast trot to the roadway.  Once he hit the road, he was off at ground eating lope, not even looking back to see if Candy was behind him, knowing he would be.  The boy was back to his impatient intensity and Candy was grateful for it.

Chapter 15

Tuesday - May 11

The throbbing in his arms and wrists was almost more than Joe could bear, but he kept up his efforts to loosen the pin that held the chains to the wagon.  He’d lost track of the days in the unchanging dark of his prison.  The interminable meals of badly cooked beans accompanied only by the supply of water allotted to him were taking its toll on his energy.  He knew he was losing weight.  The long johns, which had been snug at first, were now hanging loosely from his gaunt frame.  He’d made an effort to work his muscles in the cramped confines of the compartment, but he could feel his strength ebbing.

He continued his rhythmic motion.  Pulling, letting up, pulling again.  He didn’t think it was just his imagination there was more slack in the chains, or that he could feel a slight wobble in the pin.  When the pain was at its worst and he wanted to stop, he let a picture of Candy fill his mind.

He’s a dead man, Candy.  I promise you that.  Or I’ll die trying.  He won’t get away with shooting you.

The one thing he wouldn’t let himself dwell on was his father and the pain the man was enduring.  Ben loved his sons above all else.  The loss of Hoss had almost put the man in his own grave.  Jamie and Joe had worked long and hard to bring him back out of the shell he’d enclosed himself in.  Now it was just Jamie.  Joe steadfastly refused to believe the second dead man was his father.  As long as Reinhardt was on the loose, his father would’ve stayed home to protect Jamie.  Of that he was certain, or at least he told himself he was.

Are you doing okay, little brother?  Is Pa too much for you to handle right now?  I’m sorry, Jamie.  I’ll kill this bastard and then I’ll come home.

Pull.  Let go.  Pull.  Suddenly, the pin gave way, and Joe’s hands flew back, striking the top of the compartment with a thud.  He gasped in pain and excitement.  He was free.

No, not free.  My hands are still shackled together, and so are my feet.  But I’ve got a chance now.  Next time he opens that lid, I’ll get him.

He laid there, a dizzying rush of excitement building.  It was the first time since his capture he’d felt he had even a ghost of chance.  Struggling to focus, he mapped out a plan.  Reinhardt would open the compartment lid, and when he bent to release the chains from the pin, Joe would grab him.  He savored the satisfying image of Reinhardt lying dead, and his fingers itched to close themselves around the man’s throat. He knew he could kill Reinhardt without a second thought.  Once the man was dead, he’d stop and work on removing the chains.  Or he’d find someone to help him do it.  He nodded in satisfaction.

All I have to do is bide my time.  He’ll come tonight and then it’ll be all over.  I’ll be home soon, Pa.  Hang on, little brother.

In spite of his best efforts to stay awake and alert, Joe was dozing when the wagon stopped again, something he did more frequently as his strength ebbed. He didn’t consciously hear the echo of booted feet climbing down from the wagon seat or the muffled sounds of the man setting up camp for the night.  If he’d been fully awake he would have heard the axe chopping kindling and the muted sounds of a fire crackling.

He awoke with a start when the padlock clicked above him.  Blinking in confusion, he struggled to remember where he was.  It was only as the lid was being raised that he remembered his plan.  Tensing, he lay rigid as Reinhardt’s face showed in the gap.

“Rise and shine, Cartwright.  Chow time.” Reinhardt peered in unsuspectingly.  He reached to unlock the chain from the lynch pin.

Joe waited until the man’s gaze was focused on the lock, then  sprang upright.  He wrapped his shackles around Reinhardt’s neck and squeezed as hard as he could.  Reinhardt’s eyes showed a brief panic and then he fought like a wild animal to free himself.  Joe hung on by sheer force of will and he couldn’t help the smile of grim satisfaction as Reinhardt’s eyes rolled back into his head and he slumped in Joe’s grip.

His satisfaction was short-lived.  As Joe searched frantically through Reinhardt’s pockets for the key to his shackles, the man’s eyes flickered open and his bellow echoed through the wagon.  He grabbed Joe by the hair, yanked his head back and punched him in the throat.  Joe fell back gasping as Reinhardt surged to his feet and aimed a vicious kick at Joe’s ribs.  He twisted away from the booted foot and was able to get both feet up and under his attacker, kicking out with all his strength.  Reinhardt’s kick was blocked and despite the chains that hampered Joe’s movements, his own feet caught the man full in the chest.  His breath leaving his body in a huge rush, Reinhardt fell back over the wagon seat.  Joe heard him curse as he hit the wagon tongue below.  Joe had to hope Reinhardt had broken something that would slow him down.  He started to follow to finish him off, when he heard the slide of the shotgun.  Iinstead, he scrambled toward the back entrance of the wagon.

A ferocious barking penetrated the night air and he realized  he was going to have to make it past the dog in order to escape.  He stopped long enough to fix the dog’s position by the sound of its voice, then he dropped to the ground.

Landing awkwardly, due to the chains encasing his ankles and wrists, Joe looked around quickly.  The dog was tied to the wagon, but just far enough away that it couldn’t reach him.  It lunged at him, baying a loud protest at his attempt to escape.

Which way to go?  He moved away from the dog and the flickering fire, squinting into the distance, his eyes not able to handle even the feeble light of the moon.  Another sound made itself heard and his eyes swung eagerly in the direction of the roadway.

It sounded like a herd of horses were heading his way.  Ridden by a group of men who weren’t taking pains to lower their voices or restrain their laughter.  With an uncertain shuffle, Joe headed in their direction, as fast as the hobbles would allow him to go.  The roar of a shotgun blast echoed through the night.  Joe silently blessed the short range of the weapon and continued on a little faster.   He tripped and sprawled into the dusty road, dragging himself quickly to his feet again.

The men were moving closer now and Joe increased his pace as much as he dared.  And then, he heard a sound that drained the blood from his face and curdled his stomach.  The crunching tread of running boots behind him, moving fast.  Reinhardt was up.  Joe’s hope that the man had broken an ankle or been otherwise incapacitated had been futile.

The riders pulled into view and Joe headed for them.  He knew they saw him when they pulled up abruptly, shocked looks on their faces.  He raised his shackled hands to his face and tugged the tight gag free as he moved along the road.

Gasping in a gulp of fresh night air, he called, “Help me!”  His voice was little more than a croak from long disuse. “Help!”

The running footsteps closed in behind him,and he felt the rush of air as something rushed toward his head.  Dodging clumsily, Joe saw the butt of a shotgun flash by his shoulder.  Reinhardt drew back for another swing and Joe tried to dodge again.  He could tell by the shouts and the pounding hooves  the riders were closing in quickly and he swung to face them.  “Help!  I’m…”

His words were cut off as the second swing of the shotgun caught him full in the back.  Joe went down gasping for air, stars ricocheting crazily in his field of vision.  He looked up to see a horse standing over him, it’s rider already dismounting, gun drawn.

“I’m Joe Cartwright,” he managed to gasp out.  “From Virginia City.  Tell my Pa…” The words ended as the weapon smashed down again, this time on the back of his skull.  He was out for good.

* * *

Reinhardt lowered his shotgun and gazed coldly at the six riders who surrounded him, ranchhands by the looks of them,.  “Thanks for helping me stop this man.  He’s a vicious murderer attempting to run.  Good thing you came along when you did.”

“I think you’d better explain,” the first man said suspiciously.  His gun remained pointing at Reinhardt’s chest.  “Can you prove what you’re saying, because right now, this doesn’t look too good.”

Reinhardt fumbled in his pocket and pulled out the badge.  “I’m escorting this man back to prison.  He’s got a date with the hangman.  He’s an escapee who murdered Joe Cartwright back in Virginia City.  You might have heard something about that; it’s sure been big news.  He clubbed me over the head back at my wagon and was trying to get away when you saw him.”

He eyed the men calmly, his cold eyes never wavering from the spokesman’s face.  Something in the fierce menace he exuded made the men shuffle nervously.  Two who’d dismounted, rapidly climbed back on their horses.  The first man let his eyes drop to the body sprawled at his feet.

“Escaped con, you say?  I read about the killing of Joe Cartwright in Virginia City.  My boss has had dealings with old Ben in the past.  I hear tell he’s pretty torn up about the death of his son.  Sorry to interfere, Mister.  We wouldn’t want to keep you from getting this piece of filth back to prison.  I hope he swings.”  He holstered his gun and turned to mount his horse. “You want us to stay here tonight.  You know, kinda keep an eye on things so you can get some real shut-eye?”

Reinhardt smiled wolfishly.  “I’ve got everything under control.  I’d feel better if you found some place else to camp for the night.  This man is dangerous and I don’t want to put you or your men in harm’s way.”

He reached down casually and hefted Joe’s body like it was a sack of flour, flinging him over one shoulder so that Joe’s head hung over Reinhardt’s back.  “I’ll just be getting my prisoner back to my wagon.  I’ve got to secure him for the night.”  He tipped one finger to his hat brim and turned to go, not troubling to look back.

The ranchhands watched him stride down the dark road.  Exchanging uneasy looks, they moved by mutual agreement in the opposite direction.  Reinhardt heard a scrap of conversation drift back to him as they left.

“I think there’s a good spot to hole up a couple miles ahead.  Let’s try there.”

“Yeah, let’s put some distance between us and that guy.  I don’t like the feel of him.”

And then they were gone, leaving the Wolf alone with his victim.

Chapter 16

Thursday - May 13

The wagon stopped.  Joe hardly noticed the cessation of movement.  Since his escape attempt, Reinhardt hadn’t let him out of the box at all.  The man had hammered the lynch pin in with a ferocious anger.  Joe’s efforts to loosen the pin again had no effect it was buried so deeply.  His wrists were raw and bleeding and his head ached constantly from the blow with the shotgun.

The unremitting darkness and his enforced stillness had left him drifting in a state somewhere between sleep and awareness.  His mind had shut down in an effort to stave off the hopelessness of his situation.

When the lid of his prison was drawn back, Joe blinked at the hazy face hovering above him.  Reinhardt had made periodic stops only to force water down his victim’s throat.

The key clicked in the lock and the shackles were released from the clamp that held them down.  Reinhardt hauled Joe out of his oppressive prison, with an expression of distaste as the sharp odor of urine hit his nose.  “You sure made a mess of yourself in there, didn’t you, Cartwright?  You’d think a man like you would know better than to lie around in his own filth.”

He dropped his burden on the ground.  Immediately the dog barked and lunged at Joe’s huddled body.  Moving feebly, Joe inched his way away from the dripping jaws  snapping uncomfortably close to his bare feet.  He rolled to brace himself against the wheel of the wagon and peered up at his captor.

“Where are we?” he rasped.

“Your new home.” Reinhardt made a sweeping gesture with one arm.  “I hope you like it, you’ll be here a while.”

Joe glanced around, struggling to focus his eyes on his surroundings.  It was night; the half moon was bathing the area in a soft white glow.  After so many days in complete darkness, he found he had to shade his eyes against even that feeble light.

When his eyes had adjusted somewhat, Joe was able to take in a ramshackle cabin sitting amidst the squalor of a dusty yard.  Behind the shack was a rickety old barn, missing half it’s slats and a good portion of its roof.  A steep rocky trail led off into the darkness, and Joe gazed at it longingly.  To run up that trail and away from his tormentor; the thought sent a flood of pent up energy surging through him, giving him strength to push himself to his feet.

Reinhardt pushed him back down again, laughing at the other man’s weakness.  “You don’t have the strength of a newborn kitten.  Don’t think you can get away from me again.”

He leaned down and hooked a strong arm around Joe’s middle and hefted him up and over his shoulder.  Joe struggled feebly, but Reinhardt’s arms were like steel bands.  A flush of shame crept up Joe’s face and he fought against the bitterness that threatened to overwhelm him.

It’s just pride, damn it!  Pa always did say I was too proud.  Can’t fight a losing battle.  If I can’t match his strength, I’ve got to out wit him.  Come on, think!

Reinhardt walked into the little shack, casually pushing open the door with a booted foot.  The door hung crazily by one hinge, which screamed a protest when the door was forced open.  Dumping his prisoner on the floor against the rear wall, Reinhardt busied himself with the saddlebag that hung from his other shoulder.

Joe pulled himself up painfully.  He rested his back against the rough planking, grateful he was no longer cramped in his wagon prison.  He eyed Reinhardt warily as the man withdrew a folded square of paper and a stub of pencil.

A sharp coil of nervous tension started in the pit of his stomach as he waited tensely while Reinhardt took his time strolling across the room.

“It’s time to have your Pa pay for your sorry carcass, Cartwright,” the man intoned, a strange light glittering in his eyes.  “I want you to write him a note letting him know you’re alive.”

Joe’s head swam dizzily, and a wave of relief spread through his tense frame.  It had been about money all along. He carefully kept his face deadpan as he asked, “How much are you expecting my father to pay for me?”

If he’s going to ask for a ransom, he’s got to keep me alive a bit longer.  Time enough for me to come up with a way to kill him and get back home.  Better to write the note now, play for time.

He felt the wild surge of elation spreading through his weary body; hope acting like a miracle drug to wash away his fatigue and pain.  It was a chance.  And by God, he’d make the most of it.

Reinhardt’s laugh was chilling, as he shoved the paper and pencil into Joe’s bound hands.  “I think 250,000 dollars will just about do it.  A man could live like a king forever on that kind of money.  I was only going to ask for $100,000 but your daddy needs to pay the price for your little escape attempt.  Now write.”

Joe pushed the paper back at his captor, his turmoil showing on his grimy face.  “My father doesn’t have that kind of money.  I won’t write a note asking for it.  He’s been through enough pain.  Better to have him think I died in that fire. ”

Reinhardt’s face flushed with sudden anger.  “You won’t write?  Well, there are other ways of convincing your Pa that you’re still alive.”  He gazed speculatively at Joe’s bound hands, a wicked gleam coming into the cold eyes.  “How many fingers would it take before he recognized they were yours?  One?  Two?  Maybe your whole hand.”

He turned suddenly and gripped the handle of a large axe. “I can send him whatever it takes, Cartwright.  Your father’ll pay whether you write the note or not.”

Joe didn’t answer.  He sat up a little straighter; his chin tipped up proudly, in spite of his ragged, filthy state.  He was determined not to play the man’s sadistic games, but he knew he would have to give in.  Reinhardt was serious about mutilating him to get what he wanted.

Grudgingly, he replied,  “Give me the paper.  I’ll write your note.  Just remember my father won’t pay you a dime if I’m not alive.”

Reinhardt let a wolfish smile flicker on his lips, and tossed the axe into a dusty corner.  “Nothing says how alive you have to be, does it?  Long as you’re breathing, that counts as being alive.”

After giving his prisoner a long, speculative look, Reinhardt approached cautiously.  Joe’s previous escape attempts had taught the man  he wasn’t dealing with a coward.  When he saw his prisoner wasn’t going to make any sudden moves he held out the paper and pencil.

Joe scrabbled awkwardly with his bound hands.  He propped the paper on the floor and struggled to get his fingers around the stubby pencil.  He cursed his weakened state as he tried to write legibly.  It was only then he realized he was expected to write his note on the wanted poster.  He darted a quick look at Reinhardt, but made no comment.

Pa, I’m still alive. Don’t give him any money until you see me.  Joe.

He looked over the words he’d written and then mutely held the paper out to his captor.  Reinhardt snatched the grimy poster eagerly and read the words, a half-smile tugging at the corners of his lips.

“Well done, Cartwright.  Looks like you’re learning to be more cooperative.  Now we got us some walking to do, so on your feet.”

Joe looked up at him in surprise.  “Where are we going now?”  He couldn’t suppress a small shudder.  “Not back in the wagon?”

“Maybe.”  Reinhardt pulled him up roughly, a grin on his face as Joe swayed on his feet.  “Now walk.”  He hefted his shotgun, and gestured for Joe to precede him out the door.

Joe shuffled forward, the shackles on his ankles making movement almost impossible.  He staggered, almost fell, and pulled himself up again, determined he wouldn’t stumble in front of the smirking madman who held him captive.

Reinhardt prodded him in the back, causing Joe to stumble again.  “That’s it, Cartwright.  You’re doing a prison dance.  You’d fit in real good in the Territorial Prison right about now.”

Joe ignored him, instead concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other, as they moved out of the little shack and up the rocky trail.  His breathing grew ragged, the lack of food and exercise having robbed him of his strength.  Still they continued.

Suddenly, from out of the darkness, the snarling dog lunged at Joe.  He’d been tied to a scrubby bush next to the path.  Joe flinched away, struggling to keep his bare legs away from the dog’s teeth.

Reinhardt drew the shotgun up and casually pumped a round into the animal.  His ear’s ringing from the unexpected blast, Joe stared in numb horror as the dog yelped once and then lay silent, his lifeblood pouring out onto the stony ground.

Gesturing with the still smoking gun Reinhardt snarled, “Get moving, Cartwright.  No need to stand staring.  Didn’t need that dog anymore.  Stupid mutt was getting in the way.”

Joe looked back once more, his stomach in knots.  He’d hated the dog, almost as much as he hated Reinhardt.  But he’d been just as much a prisoner as Joe had been.  The casual cruelty shocked him more than he cared to admit.  Reinhardt killed so easily, without a hint of remorse.  Could he be trusted to keep his prisoner alive until a ransom was paid?  The bile rose in Joe’s throat and he fought to keep it down.  He wouldn’t debase himself in this man’s eyes.

Dragging his eyes up from the rocks slicing into his bare feet, Joe saw the looming entrance of a cave ahead.  He risked a glance back at his captor, and shivered slightly.  The man’s eyes gleamed with an unholy pleasure.

He’s got to keep me alive.  Pa won’t pay if I’m dead.  Hang on.  I can’t lose hope now.  He’s got to keep me alive and he knows it. The dog was expendable.  I’m not.  He wants that money.

Joe let the knowledge that his life was still valuable to his captor add strength to his steps and he was able to finish the slow walk to the dark entrance.  He found himself being pushed forward into a cave.

The flare of a match behind him drew his eye and he squinted in the sudden light of a lantern being hung on a hook near the entrance.

“This here’s your new home, Cartwright.”  Reinhardt gestured expansively, as if welcoming a guest to a fine hotel.  “Get used to it, you’ll be here awhile.”

Joe let his gaze roam around the small cavern.  It appeared to have been the beginnings of a mine.  Natural stone walls had been gouged and shored up with mining timber.  He eyed the timbers warily.  There was no telling how long they’d been there, or just how rotten they were.  He allowed himself a hope they were solid.

Reinhardt gestured toward the rear wall of the aborted mine.  Here the natural stone was untouched, but was framed by the timbers as if the departed miners were about to start another tunnel through the wall.  Joe moved forward and stood impassively as Reinhardt gestured to a length of chain that dangled over the roof-top support beam.  “Under there, Cartwright, and make it quick,” he snapped.

Joe hesitated, but then moved forward, aware he was in no condition to try another fight with the man.  Reinhardt hastily slipped a large padlock through the dangling chain and then through a link in the chains between Joe’s wrists.

He stood against the wall, testing the restraints.  There was enough play in the cuffs that he could move a few paces, but no more than that.  He might be able to sit, with just enough length in the chain to let him rest his arms on his thighs.

I’ll still be alive.  Don’t think about anything else.  He’s got to keep me alive. Once Pa gets the note, he’ll pay quickly.  God, it’ll be the end of the ranch if he does that!  I’ll kill Reinhardt when I get out of here, and get the money back.  He’ll pay for what he’s done. I won’t let Pa lose everything.

Joe let the thoughts of rescue bring fresh strength to his weary body.  He stood a little straighter and eyed Reinhardt defiantly.  “Are you finished yet?” he asked.

Reinhardt ignored him.  Instead the man worked to attach a second set of shackles to Joe’s bare ankles.  The shackles were attached to a heavy length of chain threaded through three iron rings that had been pounded in the rocky wall.  His captor was taking no chances on another escape.

As he tried to ignore the groping hands on his ankles, Joe speculated on the preparations that had been made.  Reinhardt had already had the shackles pounded in place and waiting for the day he brought his prisoner to the abandoned mine.  Joe shook his head in despair at the depth of the man’s hatred.  Did he hate the Cartwrights so much?

No.  These things aren’t new.  They’ve been here.  He’s used these before.

Joe’s eyes roamed his new prison.  He sucked in his breath unsteadily when he spotted a heap of bones in one corner.  He’d been too busy analyzing his new restraints to see it before.  He blinked rapidly to clear his vision, and strained to make out what it was.

It’s a skeleton.  He’s killed before.  Tossed the body here.  What’s to keep him from killing me?  No!  He’s got to keep me alive if he expects Pa to pay that ransom.  He won’t kill me yet.

At last the man finished his gruesome task.  He straightened and eyed his work with a satisfied air.  “You won’t be getting out of here any time soon, Cartwright.  I’ll just go deliver that note to your Pa.”

“He won’t pay a ransom if I’m dead, Reinhardt.  You remember that,” Joe said contemptuously.  “And when he pays and I get out of here, I’ll track you down and kill you.  That’s my promise to you.”

Reinhardt grinned mockingly.  “You do that, Cartwright,” he said softly.  “You go ahead and try.”  His captor left without a backward glance, disappearing into the darkness soundlessly.  Joe was surprised at how quietly the big man moved.  He strained to hear footsteps, anything that would indicate he was no longer alone.

The silence stretched out, broken only by the clank of the chains as Joe tugged on them frantically.  The crunch of rocks alerted him to the approach of a visitor.  He peered into the darkness, to see Reinhardt materialize at the entrance to the cave.  He brandished a small satchel in Joe’s direction.

“Tough luck, for you, Cartwright.  Looks like no one disturbed my little stash here.  I won’t be needing your Pa’s money after all.  I’ve got enough loot stashed here to keep me for a couple of years in Mexico.  I’ll pass the time thinking of your father when he finds you died a second time.  And died slow . . . so slow.”

Reinhardt laughed, the sound harsh in the night.  “I’ll still send your note to your precious father, but not until I get to Mexico. Should get to him in a couple of weeks or so. Your note’s gonna let your him know he could have saved your life if he hadn’t been so simple-minded.  He should have known you weren’t dead, but he gave up, didn’t he?  It’s worth losing a quarter million to know he’ll suffer all over again, because he’s gonna know you died slow and ugly”

He touched a hand to his head in mock salute.  “It’s been nice knowing you, Cartwright.  Enjoy your stay.”

Joe stared at the man in disbelief.  “No, you can’t just leave me here with no food or water.  My father will pay your ransom; you know that.  Give him a chance to pay.”  He strained against the chains that held him, struggling to get closer to Reinhardt, an insane longing to close his hands around the man’s throat consuming him.

Reinhardt merely stepped back a pace, leaving Joe to struggle impotently against the shackles that held him fast.  With a last look at his handiwork, he turned to go, throwing one last chilling threat to his prisoner before he disappeared from sight.  “I bet he would pay.  And when I need that quarter million – well, I heard while I was away your Pa got himself another son.”

“NO!” Joe’s scream echoed through the night.  He was rewarded by the sound of returning footsteps and Reinhardt’s face appeared back at the entrance of the cave.

Joe felt a surge of hope.  Was this just another of the man’s games.  He hadn’t really planned to leave Joe here, had he?  He’d come back to release his prisoner and take him back to the cabin.

Joe’s hopes were dashed as he watched Reinhardt grab the lantern from the hook.  “Forgot the lantern.  Dead men don’t need light, Cartwright.”  And then he was gone.  All that was left of Joe’s tormentor was the fading sound of booted feet slipping back over the rocky trail.  And then they too were gone.

Joe stared in horror at the gaping entrance to the cave.  The first faint glimmers of dawn were showing in the distance and he could see the perceptible lightening of the sky.

I’ll see the sun again.  It’s been so long since I’ve seen the sun.

He strained toward the opening, his eyes wide as they took in the approaching dawn.  Without preamble, an explosion rocked the night.  Joe pressed back flat against the rocky wall of the cave, and watched in horror as a landslide of rocks, dirt and debris tumbled down to fill up the entrance to his prison.

Reinhardt had already had the charges in place when he’d walked his prisoner up that trail.  It had only taken one match to light the fuse that brought the whole rocky wall down.

Choking on the dust that filled the little chamber, Joe was left in complete darkness once more.  Arms and legs chained to the wall, no hope of escape at all.

Chapter 17

Friday - May 14

The dust settled, leaving behind a filmy haze that made Joe cough periodically.  His face was grimy and sweat-stained.  The long johns that now hung loosely on his gaunt frame were pungent with a variety of smells, none of them good.  His throat was choked with dust from the explosion and he craved a cool drink of water to wash the debris from his mouth.  As his eyes struggled to adjust, Joe saw there were chinks in the stone barrier that allowed sufficient light to distinguish day from night.  He focused intently on the light, longing to be out of the hellish darkness and diving into a swimming hole, racing Jamie to the other side where they’d eat one of Hop Sing’s big picnic lunches.  Again he tugged futilely on the chains that held him prisoner.  His wrists screamed in pain as he yanked hard, allowing the metal to bite deep into tender flesh.

At last, he gave up in frustration.  Sinking to his knees in despair, he dropped his head to his chest, lowering his arms as far as he could to ease the tension in his shoulders.

Water.  Just one drink of water.  Don’t leave me here to die like this.  Pa?  Keep Jamie safe.  Reinhardt’ll be after him too.  Don’t let him win again. What’s happening to you?  It’s going to kill you when you get that letter, isn’t it, Pa?  I’ve got to get out of here, so that I can be home before that letter arrives.  I’m not dead yet.

“Help me!”  He knew it was pointless to call out, but the words were torn from his lips anyway.  “Is anybody there?  Someone help me!”

He shouted until his voice was a whispery croak.  There was nothing left to do but sit.  Again silence enveloped him.  And then out of the silence he heard it.  A steady drip.  Joe’s head snapped up and he strained to hear.  Yes.  Water.  Dripping down the wall somewhere close.  He struggled to his feet.  Where was it?

His movement masked the sound and he held himself unnaturally still, his head cocked, straining to hear.  Drip.  Drip.  That was it!  To his left.  He shuffled backward and to his left, running into the rocky wall.  With his fingers splayed out he searched the surface, still listening.  The dripping evoked such vivid images of water he moaned again.  Just one drink.  That was all he craved.

His fingers touched something wet.  He’d found it.  He traced the path of the moisture as high as he could reach.  It was a small trickle, making its way steadily down the wall.  Not enough to catch in a pair of cupped hands, as Joe soon found out.  The water’s closeness was driving him mad and he tried again to catch it in his hands.

Frustrated, he leaned against the wall and rested his cheek on the wet surface.  The water pooled against his face, and a drop worked its way into his mouth.  He gasped at its coolness and leaned closer, pressing his face as close as he could to the damp rocks.  Lapping like a dog, he licked the wall, ignoring the metallic tang of the rock that saturated the water.  It was cool and it was wet.  He licked until his tongue hurt, but he’d managed to get enough to slake the worst of his raging thirst.

Moving away from the precious life-giving fluid, he sank down again, getting as comfortable as the chains would allow.

He didn’t know!  He thinks I’ll die of thirst and starvation.  He’s wrong.  I’ve got water and he didn’t know it was here.

The unreasoning giddy surge of elation swept over Joe and a grin split the cracked lips painfully.  Then common sense took over.  Reinhardt had carefully prepared the cave for his prisoners.  He had to know the water was there.  He’d wanted Joe to find it.  A man without water dies quickly; one with something wet in his belly would last a lot longer.  Reinhardt had deliberately placed Joe within reach of the one thing that could prolong his life in his silent tomb.

He knows the water will keep me alive longer.  He wants Pa to know I died slow.  It’s going to kill Pa to find me here and know he could have gotten here in time.

“I’ll kill you, Reinhardt!”  Joe didn’t realize he’d spoken aloud.  He started at the sound of his own voice.

You’re losing your mind, Cartwright!   Talking to yourself is the first sign.

He peered in the direction he’d seen the skeleton.  “Bet you talked to yourself too, didn’t you?” he whispered.  “I wonder who you were and how long you were in here.  Could you see the sun?  He didn’t wall you in, did he?  Lucky bastard.”

Joe drooped in his place against the wall.  The interminable darkness he’d lived in for so long had sapped his will and his energy plummeted.  He finally dropped into a fitful sleep.

Jerking  awake, he looked around in surprise.  He had the feeling he’d been asleep for a long time.  The light coming in through the chinks in the stone was different. How long? What day was it?

And then he heard something.  What was that?  He was sure something had awakened him.  “Who’s there?” he tried to call, but his strained voice emerged as a husky whisper.  “Is someone there?”

A rock dropped to the floor, rattling its way down the wall, the tiny noise reverberating in the silent chamber.  Joe’s head swung toward the sound sharply, and he tried to see something more than the darkness.  He struggled to his feet, his heart racing wildly.  Another rock trickled down the wall, and then a third.  The chink of light at the top of the rock fall darkened abruptly.  Something peered through the small opening, and then disappeared.

“Who’s there?  Who are you?”   Joe tried to yell, disappointed when he couldn’t produce more than the same hoarse whisper.  “Help me!”

He listened, but the sound wasn’t repeated.  Joe sank dejectedly back to the ground.

Stupid.  Just a squirrel, or something.  Stupid, Joe.

A sudden patter of feet sounded somewhere off to his right.  Joe sat still, his head tracking the sound his eyes couldn’t see.  He held his breath as he listened. The patter came closer.

What is it?  A rat?  His feet curled up instinctively and the patter stopped.

A soft meow revealed the identity of the visitor, and Joe chuckled.  “You’re not a rat, are you?”  He thought he could see the gleam of cat’s eyes in the darkness.  “How’d you get in here anyway cat?  Can I get out that way?”

There was no sound, no movement from the little creature.

“Oh a wild one, are you?  Don’t like the noise us humans make?  Sorry about that.”

The cat must have decided the strangely scented creature crouching by the wall wasn’t going to hurt it, because it moved to the trickle of water.  A gentle lapping indicated the reason for its presence in the cave.

“Reinhardt's explosion cut you off from your supply, did he?  He’s like that, cat.”  Joe felt strangely comforted that something else lived.  He’d been feeling so alone, as if he were the last creature alive in the world.

The lapping stopped as the cat’s thirst diminished.  The patter of little feet allowed Joe to track the animal’s movement back across the cave.  The soft rattle of gravel near the wall indicated  it had a way in and out, and then it was gone.

“Don’t go!”  Joe surprised himself with his words.  He’d never particularly cared for cats.  Pets had been superfluous on a working ranch, although there was always a dog underfoot somewhere.  Hoss, with his love for creatures of any kind, had never been able to turn away a stray pup.  And Hoss had conspired with Jamie to make sure Jamie had a dog for company.   And Griff brought home that pup he called Charles.  Pretty high-falutin’ name for a dog.  Cats were creatures that inhabited the barn and kept the mice population under control -- Charles had done his best to keep them hiding there.

Talking to a cat.  Wanting it to stay.  You’re losing it, Joe.

He waited quietly, hoping that his visitor would return.  The silence lengthened until he once again felt himself falling asleep.

Chapter 18

Saturday - May 15

From Banshee Wells, they’d followed Reinhardt over the river into Arizona where he’d been seen driving the peddler’s horses on the road between two small towns.  But they’d lost him after that and wasted precious time checking out settlements too small to be called towns and a spider’s web of roads.  Five days after they’d stopped the old peddler’s wagon they’d been no closer to finding  Reinhardt than they had been when they took the wrong road out of Banshee Wells.   The strength they’d gained from one good night’s sleep had run out days ago.

By the time they hit the little town of Saddleback Ridge they were getting testy with each other.   The testiness might have evolved into full-blown anger over some little thing but neither had the energy for anger.

As had become their custom when they hit a new place, Candy headed for whatever passed for a sheriff’s or marshal’s office and Griff went to ask questions at the general store and pick up supplies.  But in Saddleback Ridge they didn’t even have that excuse to get a little respite from each other’s company.  The seedy general store doubled as the sheriff’s office and included the post office as well.  Griff let Candy do the talking, still not comfortable in the company of a man wearing a badge.  He idly thumbed through a stack of wanted posters, wondering if word of the reward for Reinhardt had made its way out to these little towns with no telegraph.

It had.

There had been a wanted poster tacked on a board outside the Sheriff’s office in Banshee Wells, but it had come in over the telegraph.  This one had arrived by wagon with the latest shipment of supplies.  However, when Griff showed it to the shopkeeper/sheriff his response shocked them both.

“Oh that one.  He’s already been caught.  He’s on his way back to prison.”

Candy and Griff had a hundred questions but the man had no answers.

“All’s I know is some a the boys from the Silver T stopped at Malone’s on their way back to their ranch from a trip deliverin’ horses.  They saw the poster and were real pissed at how close they’d come to getting that $10,000 reward.   This guy almost escaped from the man who was takin’ him back to prison and they helped stop him.  They didn’t know about the reward then though.”

Once they realized this part-time lawman wasn’t going to give them any more information, Griff and Candy headed over to Malone’s Saloon, one of only two other buildings in this road stop of a town.

The saloon wasn’t much – a dusty place that served warm beer and whiskey “when they had it”.  It provided a few tables – mostly boards set on old barrels with rickety chairs.  Its main attraction was that it was a place to get out of the sun before moving on.  The owner, whose name was not Malone but Becker, was a friendly enough sort once they’d ordered a couple of beers.

“Them Silver T boys came in here Wednesday night full of some story about running into an escaped convict.   The man tried to get them to help by claiming to be Joe Cartwright.  Fool didn’t know that even in Arizona we’d heard tell ‘bout Cartwright bein’ murdered.  The man who was takin’ ‘im back to prison caught up with ‘im right away though, at least accordin’ to what the boys were saying when they first came in.  By the time they’d had a few beers, you’d a thought they’d captured the guy personal like and delivered him back to the prison guard.  Course that was after they saw the reward poster.  By the end of the night they was figurin’ on writing to the guvner of Nevada and demandin’ a reward fer catchin’ the guy.  Anyways, guess he’s back in Nevada by now.  Not fer long though.  He’ll be gettin’ a rope soon enough.  Cartwright’s too big a name in Nevada fer him to escape hanging this go around.”

Griff’s stomach knotted up so tight he couldn’t breath.  All along the idea Joe was alive was a hope, a possibility.  And here it was.  Someone had seen him, talked to him.  He vaguely heard Candy frantically asking questions.  “When did they see him?.  Where?  What did the prisoner look like?”    It took a few moments for him to realize Candy wasn’t getting any answers.  The barkeep knew only that they’d seen the two men before they’d bedded down for the night on Tuesday.  He hadn’t paid attention to where the men had been coming from – “south, east, maybe southeast?”  Becker gestured vaguely.  The only thing he knew for sure was where they were headed – west to the Silver T, a full days ride from Saddleback Ridge.

Candy pounded his fist on the bar, making their beer glasses jump.  “Who can I talk to who might’ve paid better attention?”

Becker was taken aback at Candy’s vehemence.  “Sorry mister, how was I ta know it would be important to anyone?  They was the onliest ones come in that whole day.  We don’t have no hotel here so I let ‘em bed down on the porch.  They took off early, ‘fore I opened up.  If you want any details yer gonna have ta ride out ta the ranch.”

Chapter 19

Sunday - May 16

The cat was back.  The darkness didn’t bother the little animal.  Joe held his breath, hoping it would stay.  It had entered the cave several times, but the presence of the strange creature who sat against the wall had it spooked.  At the slightest movement, the little animal would scamper back out the way it had come.  Now, thirst drove it onward.

Joe felt the soft, warm body brush against the bare skin of his foot and he smiled.  “It’s nice to see you again, Cat,” he whispered softly, hoping that the animal wouldn’t bolt.  “I’m not as frightening as I look.  Really, I’m not.”

Joe heard the cat settle by the wall and start lapping at the water.  “You too?  Is that why you spend your time in here?”

The long mournful howl of a coyote sounded close by the walled off entrance to the cave.  Joe jumped a little, and the cat froze.

“So you come in here to hide, huh?  You got enemies out there too, cat?  See, we’re not so different, you and I, are we?”

Thinking of that pathetic huddle of bones  he’d seen when he first arrived in the cave, Joe suddenly understood what had helped to create them.  “Was that fella dead when those coyotes got to him, cat?  Or did they help him along some?  Great.  Now I’ve got that to worry about too.  Wouldn’t do for them to find a way in here when I’m sleeping.  Can’t defend myself too well trussed up like this, now can I?”

He leaned back against the wall trying to find a more comfortable position. It was increasingly difficult to find a position that didn’t irritate the multiple sores and abrasions on his body. He’d ripped off the filthy long johns after the first day. Wasn't like he was expecting company. Sitting on them provided the only cushioning from the rough stones. Joe struggled to think of anything but his physical woes.

He turned his eyes toward where the cat was lapping at the wall, and began a rambling monologue.  He found himself almost babbling, as he talked about the Ponderosa and his family.  Stories about playing with his brothers when he was a boy, mixed and mingled with sweet memories of Alice and the baby who almost was.

The cat hovered just out of reach, apparently fascinated by the man’s voice.  If Joe moved suddenly, the cat skittered backward, but stayed in the little cavern.  Joe kept talking, at first in an effort to keep the animal with him, but then because the monologue seemed to bring home closer to him.

He longed to be out of the cave and breathing fresh air, riding Cochise as fast as the animal could run and then stopping in a the saloon for a cold beer.  He felt his spirit ebbing and could almost sense Alice’s hovering presence.

And then another presence joined that of his dead wife, a big, bluff, hearty male with a booming laugh.  He could almost see Hoss’s bright blue eyes sparkling with fun or twinkling in mischief as they plotted yet another practical joke.  And at the far edge of his mind’s eye, a softer, gentler, feminine spirit hovered. Mama?

He spoke to them all, seeing them instead of the cat.  Pouring out his loneliness and despair, his fear of never seeing the sun again, his need to get back to his father.  Joe talked on.

Time passed slowly, and he would lapse into periods of dark depression in which he didn’t speak at all.  Then the cat would stir, moving as if to leave the cave and Joe would struggle to believe he too would leave the cave eventually.  It was during those times he struggled endlessly to free himself, yanking on the chains adding still more abrasions to his wrists and ankles.  He worked desperately to tug the cuffs off his wrists.

At last the cat tired of the game and strolled casually by the now-silent man.  Joe again felt that comforting brush of fur as the cat left him.  He listened intently, marking its progress across the room.  “Good bye, cat.  It’s been nice talking to you,” he called.  “Come back, okay?  It’s too quiet in here.”

With a sigh, he settled back against the wall.  “Oh, and bring me some dinner the next time you come.  A nice plump rabbit sounds pretty good right about now.  Don’t forget!”

Shaking his head at his reliance on an animal to keep him sane, Joe let his thoughts wander to the time his father and Candy had been kept in the mine by a vengeance-seeking madman.  Candy had told him how strong his father had been.  Ben Cartwright wouldn’t break down and talk to a cat, would he?  Of course, there’d been the two of them in that pit, while Joe had nothing but a skeleton to keep him company.  But he couldn’t help the feeling of inadequacy.

Am I letting you down, Pa?  I’m sorry I’m not as strong as you.  I’ll try harder.  I’ll get back to you and we’ll laugh about this someday.  Maybe compare notes.

Now that the cat had gone, Joe felt his eyelids droop.  He didn’t fight the impulse to sleep.  It helped to pass the time, so he dozed off.  His last thought before succumbing to sleep was for the pile of bones.  How long would it be before he joined that pathetic heap?

Chapter 20

Monday - May 17

The moon now reduced to a sliver, they had to use their lanterns and keep the horses to a walk over the second half of the unfamiliar trail to the Silver T.   Even so, it was still dark when they banged on the door of the main house.  Dan Travers responded bootless and armed with a shotgun, but despite their scruffy appearance, he welcomed them.   He recognized Candy’s name as the Ponderosa foreman.  Despite not having seen Ben Cartwright in years, his dealings with him had been so positive that in the ensuing years both had given good business references about the other to their mutual benefit.

Griff stayed back while Candy explained they were after the man suspected of murdering Ben’s son.  He and Candy hadn’t reached any agreement on whether to share their belief Joe was alive.  Griff figured to leave it to Candy.  Even now when it seemed their belief had more weight, it would be risky to share it.  If in the end they found Joe dead, perhaps tortured, would it do Mr. Cartwright any good to know he hadn’t died in that fire?  If they shared their suspicions with anyone, word could get back to Virginian City.  To give him hope and then come up dry would be that much worse.

Travers put on a pair of carpet slippers and escorted them to the bunkhouse where he’d rousted out the six hands who’d run into the escaping prisoner.  Griff watched as Candy quickly determined which man was the likeliest source of information and concentrated on him, peppering him with questions about the two men they’d seen.

“Well you gotta remember, it was dark ‘cept for that half moon.  The prisoner could’ve been the guy on the wanted poster.  He had the gray streaked hair and beard, light eyes.   With the beard and all it was hard to tell his age ‘cept for the gray in his hair.  He was skinny.  Funny though.  The poster had to be wrong about his height.  That guy wasn’t even six foot much less six two.  Even if they measured him in his boots, he was no six two.”

“And the man with the badge?” Candy prompted.

“Mean lookin’ bastard.  I had my revolver drawn and pointed right at him ‘til he showed me his badge but I wouldn’t a put it past him to blow me out of the saddle with that shotgun before I could’ve gotten a shot off.  Seemed tallish, dark hair, clean-shaven.  Didn’t say where he was from.  Said he was headed for the prison.”

Candy looked over at Travers.  “I’m going to need this man to take me back to the place where he ran into the two men.”

Travers was reluctant.  “Now I can’t hold with you takin’ that prisoner away from the law no matter what he’s done.  From what I know of Ben Cartwright, he’d be willing to let the law hang that man”

Candy paused and Griff could see he was trying to decide how much to say.  “We think the man with the badge might be Reinhardt.  The man he’s claiming is the man who killed Joe doesn’t meet the description.  Reinhardt is a tall man.”  Candy looked over at Griff.  “Griff here’s seen Reinhardt.  The guy is smart enough to be using some innocent man as a shield.  We need to catch up with him and find out.”

One of the men in the back of the group asked, “Why would the prisoner claim to be Joe Cartwright?”

Candy shrugged and looked at all six men.   “Did he look to be in his right mind, this prisoner?”  Griff read the intensity with which Candy waited the answer.  He was almost frantic to know Joe’s condition but maintained an impassive face.

All six looked doubtful.  “Sure hadn’t been eatin’ regular while he was on the run,” one of the men volunteered.  The others nodded.

Another added, “And didn’t look like that lawman was treatin’ him too good.”

Rendall, the man who’d been doing most of the talking, had his own answer.  “He looked desperate.  That’s what I figured any man facin’ the gallows would look like.”

Chapter 21

Tuesday - May 18

He woke again.  Joe was getting used to the endless sleep his body craved.  It was a way of shutting down, conserving energy as his body wasted away and his stomach burned with hunger.

He could feel it now.  His body craved food as much as sleep; the sleep was like a drug his body used to mask the hunger.  He suffered endless visions of meals he’d eaten in the past.  He’d even welcome Reinhardt’s stale bread and badly cooked beans now.  He was thinner than ever.  In spite of the darkness, he could tell there wasn’t much left to lose.

He’d made many trips to the trace of water on the wall.  Several times, he’d tried to force himself to stay away, willing himself to accept death gracefully.  But he couldn’t do it.  It wasn’t in Joe Cartwright to give up and die.  It wasn’t courage; Joe knew that.  He was just too stubborn to give up.  Hadn’t his father spent years berating him for that hard head?

The enforced isolation was beginning to work on his mind.  He was talking to himself, even when the cat wasn’t around to give him a good excuse.  Little things, memories of his brothers, his father, Cochise, and the good times he’d had.  When he was awake his thoughts focused on Jamie and his father, the daily life of ranch and town.   When he dozed fitfully, his dreams were full of Hoss, Alice and his mother.  They felt very close now, and he didn’t have a doubt they were waiting for him to join them soon.  He spent time thinking with regret about the baby who’d died with Alice.  What would it have been like?  A boy, or a girl?  He’d always thought he’d get a second chance to be a father.  Now it would be up to Jamie to give the Ponderosa a future.

The scrabbling of small feet on the rocks got his attention and he grew still.  As he waited, his heart beating faster, he felt the brush of soft fur against his leg.  He jumped, his leg jerking away, sending whatever it was skittering to the opposite corner of the cave.

“Is that you, cat?  I’ve been wondering where you were,” Joe said softly.  “I didn’t mean to scare you.  Are you still here?”

He sat still, straining to hear the slightest sound.  At last his visitor felt safe enough to move again.  Joe heard the soft tread of the cat slipping by him, then the lapping started again.

“What do you look like, cat?  Are you big?  What color?  What do you find to eat around here?”  Joe couldn’t stop the grim chuckle that emerged from his misery.  “If you hadn’t eaten up all the mice, I might have been able to catch one for myself.  I’d eat just about anything at this point.  How ‘bout you, cat?  You want to come close enough for me to eat you?”

The lapping stopped, and Joe had a sudden vision of the gleaming eyes staring at him.  “I don’t mean it.  At least, I think I don’t.  Don’t have any way of killing you anyway.  These damned chains keep me from doing much.  Never eaten cat before.  And raw?”  Again he smiled grimly.  “I never thought raw cat would sound so good.”

He smiled a little as the lapping resumed.  “You trust me that much, cat?  Don’t be too sure.  I’m hungry enough to eat you if you get too close.  So you play it safe now, you hear?  Don’t tempt me too much.”

The brush of fur was back, but Joe held still this time.  The cat proceeded at a sedate pace across the cramped cavern, heading for whatever opening let it in.  Joe felt a pang of terror his only companion was leaving him alone again.

“No!  Don’t go!  I won’t eat you, I promise. Please, cat.  Stay with me.”  His breath caught in a gasp.  “I’m losing my mind.  Begging a cat to stay in the dark with me.  Get it together, Joe!”

He banged an impotent fist on his thigh.  “I’ve got to stay strong.  I can’t let Reinhardt win.  There has to be a way out of here.  The cat comes and goes.  So can I.”  He pounded his fist again and felt the heavy metal cuff slip up and down his now-gaunt arm.

He’d tried pulling his hand through the cuff before, but it had always wedged tight.  Now, without thinking, he pulled again, and gasped.  The cuff slid further up his hand than ever before.  A sudden rush of adrenalin surged through him, along with a renewal of hope.  He’d lost so much weight, removing the cuff might now be a possibility.

Grasping the heavy cuff on his right wrist with his left hand, he pulled as hard as he could.  The cuff slid forward smoothly, until it caught on the widest part of the hand, just past his wrist.

Joe concentrated on squeezing his hand as tightly as he could, and he felt the cuff slide a little further.  The metal bit deep into the tender skin.  He cried out in pain and let go.

He hadn’t been sure the cat was still there, but his cry scared it.  It fled out its bolt hole with a little rush of footsteps in the gravel.  Joe let it go without a murmur this time, all his energy now concentrated on pulling his hand from the shackle.

He pulled steadily again, this time biting his lip to distract himself from the pain.  He could feel the warmth of his blood as it trickled down his skin from myriad lacerations, but he kept pulling.  He’d always been fine-boned, but the years had added weight to his frame. Mostly muscle of course,  he grinned to himself.  Reinhardt’s treatment had taken any spare flesh from him, leaving him with next to nothing between those slender bones and the metal encasing them.

He pulled harder, sweat breaking out on his forehead and dripping down his face.  He swiped his eyes against his shoulder impatiently and resumed pulling.  Now he had the cuff wedged tightly at the widest juncture of his hand,  the pain was intense.  He knew he could push it back with effort, but he refused to allow himself to take that step backward.

Wedging back against the rocky wall, he stopped his efforts, the cuff stuck fast on his hand, cutting off the circulation to his fingers.  His wrist and arm were throbbing all the way to his elbow, and he panted with the effort he’d put in.  Water.  Maybe the cool water would help numb the pain a little.

Joe staggered to his feet and found the rivulet by instinct.  He leaned his hot face against the damp wall, pressing his lacerated wrist against the stream as well.  He didn’t know how long he stood there.  His arm felt as if it was on fire, and the cool water did little to dispel the pain.

Joe knew he had to continue.  If he stopped now, he’d never be able to bring himself to this point again.  He crouched down, firmly planting himself against the wall, allowing the rocks to bite deeply into the tender skin of his back, another distraction.

Taking a deep breath, he grasped the now-slippery metal and began the inexorable pulling.  It gave an inch, and he gasped at the fresh pain.  And then it moved forward again.  He felt the crunch of bone, as something snapped inside his hand, and he screamed aloud, but still he continued.  The cuff inched its way forward, and more bones shifted, grinding painfully with the movement.  Joe didn’t know how much longer he could continue.  Shooting stars were flashing in front of his eyes, and his head swam dizzily.

Do it!  Come on, damn it!  Don’t stop now!  It became a litany in his brain, as he pushed all the pain and hurt away, focusing an intense energy on the metal that lay, slick with his own blood, on his knuckles.

And then it was off, shooting off his hand with one last pull.  More small bones crunched with its passage, and Joe surrendered to the deeper darkness of unconsciousness.  The shackle dropped to the cave floor, ringing out in angry protest at its defeat.  And then all was silent.

Chapter 22

Tuesday - May 18

The first thing he became aware of was a horrible throbbing in his hand.  Even in the darkness, Joe could tell  he’d seriously damaged the bones when he’d forced them through the shackle.  He pulled himself to the little trickle on the wall and gently pressed his swollen hand to the cool rocks.

The realization he’d managed to free one hand, after being shackled so long, sent a thrill through him.  If he’d found a way out of one shackle, he could get out of them all.

He focused his attention on the remaining wrist shackle.  The heavy cuff weighed down his left wrist and he forced the fingers of his right hand to grasp the metal.  The right hand, never as strong as his left and now with bones certainly broken, failed to exert enough pressure to move the cuff.

Joe groaned.  He’d worked so hard to free that hand, only to have hurt himself too badly to use it to get the second cuff off.  There had to be something else he could do.  He’d come so far; he couldn’t stop now.

With the hand free from its shackle, Joe could extend his reach to the floor.  He swept the area with a questing hand, encountering several large rocks in the process.  Frowning thoughtfully, he scooped up the rocks and piled them in a heap where he could get to them easily.

A half-formed plan prompted him to run his fingers over the metal rings that held the chain into the wall.  Reinhardt’s ingenious system meant Joe would have to remove all three rings from the wall in order to free his legs.  It was a daunting proposition, but he didn’t hesitate.

Don’t have any choice.  I’ve got to get out of here.  Joe chuckled grimly.  It’s not like I’ve got anything better to do with my time.  I don’t even have to stop for dinner.

He grasped one of the rocks firmly, ruthlessly suppressing the urge to drop it because of the pain.  He began a rhythmic banging on the right ring.  Every jolt of the stone against the wall sent shockwaves tearing through his damaged hand.  Even though he didn’t want to stop, he was forced to give up after only a few minutes.  His hand was swelling even more with the stress of the pounding.  He switched to his left hand, but found the shackle banged against his abraded wrist.   It was almost as painful as the pounding of the broken bones.  Because his left hand was still constrained by the chain, he couldn’t get a good angle to continue pounding on the right ring.

He switched to the one on the left.  They all had to be taken out anyway, he reasoned.  He was still making progress.  At the very least, switching between hands bought him more work time.  After ten minutes, he knew he had to stop.

Moving back to the little trickle, he again bathed his hands in the cool flow.  The water did little to help the pain, but it soothed the heat he could feel building in the broken hand.  He let time pass, fighting the urgent desire to free himself, schooling himself to a calm determination.  He wouldn’t get very far if he did too much too soon.

The cuffs were tearing his wrist apart with each blow.  He had to keep pounding on the shackles to get free, but his wrist wouldn’t take much more.  He needed something to cushion the broken skin from the sharp metal.

An idea flashed through his mind. He crouched down and searched for the filthy long johns he'd ripped off days ago. They were soiled, stiff to the touch. The stench that rose from them was nauseating. He didn’t hesitate. Tearing the foul cloth in strips, he held the pieces in the little rivulet of water, hoping to rinse out the worst of the dirt.  Then he carefully wrapped the cuff with the damp pieces.  He knew there was no way to keep the cloth from rubbing against the wounds, but it was the best he could do.  It wasn't like he was going to need them again. I’m sure the cat won’t mind if I don’t dress for dinner,  Joe thought, a wry chuckle leaving his cracked lips.

At last he felt the hand could take more pounding.  He wrapped the remainder of the shredded long johns around his rock.  Gripping it carefully, he began banging again.  Quickly establishing a pattern of five blows with the rock in his right hand, and ten with the left, followed by a short period of time with his hands in the water, the night passed.  The little cat didn’t return that night.  The noise must have been too frightening.  Joe missed his companion, but the need for freedom was stronger than his desire for company.  Throughout the night, the rhythmic pounding continued.

Chapter 23

Wednesday - May 19

From the light shining through the chinks in the rocks, Joe knew it was morning.  Another day gone by.  Wearily, he hefted the rock in his right hand; even though it was so swollen he couldn’t grip the tool properly.  Thoughts of sleep consumed him. But he forced himself to continue.  He knew his strength was waning rapidly and with no food to fuel his body there were no reserves to draw on.

The pounding had become so routine he almost missed it when the ring bent to the side, now holding on by just a thread.  Slowly, the meaning of what had happened penetrated his increasingly sluggish thoughts.  He stopped and ran his fingers over the ring.

Adrenalin surged through him, allowing his thoughts to crystallize.  Almost there.  A few more strokes and he’d have one ring out of the wall.  Gripping the rock tightly, he smashed it down with all his remaining strength.  One blow, then two, and the ring bent a little more.  On the third blow, the ring severed and flew across the cave to land in the darkness beyond him.  At the same time, the rock cracked into several pieces, slicing into Joe’s hand as it disintegrated.

His cry, a mixture of exultation and pain, echoed through the cave.  He could feel blood pouring from the deep cut in his mangled hand, and he staggered to his feet.  Reaching the water, he pressed the hand as hard as he could against the wet rocks.  He could feel more play in the chain now one of the rings was gone.

Joe’s head swam dizzily, and his hand throbbed unmercifully.  He knew he’d be unable to use it to help with the remaining rings, but he forced that thought aside.

Concentrate on the one on the left.  I can use my left hand for that one.  It’s got to be about half way there.  I’ll put my efforts into that and it’ll go quickly.  Almost there.  Just a little more.  I can do it.

He forced his exhausted body away from the water and shuffled back to the wall.  He swept a hand around the floor until he found the other rocks he’d gathered.  Selecting the largest one, he bent to his task.

It was easier now; he had more play in the chain.  He could get a better angle on the ring.  What Joe wouldn’t acknowledge was the increasing dizziness that made him sway on his feet.  The blood still dripping from his right hand was adding to the weakness caused by the lack of food.  He knew his time was running out.  He chipped at the ring with more effort.

 I just need some sleep.  The rock dropped from his hand, but he didn’t notice.  He leaned his  whirling head against the wall.  Sleep, just for a minute.  Just a little rest.

His body crumpled to the ground, and he lay still, slipping into sleep in the moment it took his battered frame to fall to the ground.

* * *

The cat peered into the cave from the entrance of the bolthole.  At last the noises had stopped.  Thirst long denied by the presence of predators outside the cave and the frightening noises inside drove it onward.  Picking a dainty path across the floor, it stopped and sniffed at the huddled form lying on the rocky floor.  No longer moving, or making the odd noises that intrigued the cat, it was definitely no threat now.  Not food yet, not that far gone.  But no danger.

Heading for the water the cat lapped daintily, knowing there was no need for haste.  The man on the floor wouldn’t bother him now.

Chapter 24

Wednesday - May 19

So close and then three wasted days.  They’d found the site where the six men had camped easily enough.  They hadn’t been trying to hide anything.  Finding the place where Reinhardt had pulled the wagon off the road was more difficult as Rendall could only estimate  it was about a mile or two back of their own camp.  Once they found it, the man was anxious to get back, if not to work, at least to Malone’s for a beer.

They knew they were almost a week behind Reinhardt by now and were determined to make no mistakes.  Following week-old tracks wasn’t easy but they were aided for a full day by the absence of any alternative route for a wagon to take.   Within a quarter mile of the campsite, the road was cut into hills too steep for a wagon to turn either up or down although a man on horseback might have made it.

Wednesday evening their luck gave out.  A sandstorm hit them and they had no choice but to seek shelter.  More time wasted.

*  *  *

They took shelter from the sandstorm in the only building they’d seen for miles – an abandoned mine shack.   It offered scant shelter.  The boarded up windows let in the wind-driven sand and there was no place to build a fire.  But it was just big enough to bring all the horses inside so they were warm enough.  They upended a rickety table and with two wobbly chairs managed to make a little space to sleep without danger of being trampled by the horses.

They’d hoped to find someone who’d seen Reinhardt to give them a direction.  Someone Reinhardt had left alive to talk.  After Charles found the body of the old prospector, head crushed, thrown in a gully and covered perfunctorily with sand, they figured it wasn’t likely anyone would confront him directly and live to tell about it.  Reinhardt must be worried the Silver T hands might start the law after him.

Griff knew he should sleep but Candy’s restlessness made it impossible.   Not that he was noisy.  His aimless pacing among the horses couldn’t even be heard above the howling wind.  But his friend’s despair was palpable and though Griff knew no way to alleviate it, he couldn’t turn his back on it either.

Finally Candy sat down, resting his back against the wall.  “We’ll head for Mexico and try to pick up his track.   He’ll have to stop someplace.  For supplies if nothing else.”  Candy voice was calm, emotionless and worse, without hope.

“We’ll find him Candy.  He hasn’t killed Joe yet.  He’ll want his father to start healing first.  He’ll keep Joe alive.  He will.”  Griff hoped his voice carried more conviction than he felt.

“But what will he do to him while he’s waiting?”  Candy voiced the fear Griff was trying to hide.

“You told me once Joe was tougher than you’d expect from him bein’ a rich man’s son.  He almost escaped once, he could succeed next time.”

“Yeah, Joe’s tough.”  It was a bare statement of fact that carried no optimism.  “Doesn’t mean he won’t die.  Just that he won’t die easy.”

There was a long silence but even in the darkness, Griff could tell Candy wasn’t asleep.

When Candy spoke, Griff figured maybe he needed to talk.  “You know I had no intention of staying long when I took that job Mr. Cartwright offered me seven years ago.  And Joe was one of the main reasons.”

“You didn’t get along?”  Griff was surprised to hear that. Joe and Candy could be real competitive but he’d never seen them fight or even have a serious quarrel.

“Naw, it wasn’t that.  Joe’s easy enough to get along with.  It’s just we’re about the same age.  I had no intentions of taking orders from him, some rich man’s son who hadn’t ever had to earn his own way.  I think I figured the first time he started getting’ bossy, I was gonna take off.”

“So what happened that first time?”

Candy chuckled slightly.  Back then Joe wasn’t much on giving orders, at least not to me.  His father ruled that roost.   That’s when I started feelin’ sorry for him.”

“Sorry for Joe?”  Griff found that hard to believe.

“Can you imagine what it’s like to grow up with Ben Cartwright as a father?”

Griff leaned forward, not wanting to have to speak loudly against the wind.  “I thought you liked Mr. Cartwright.  You’ve stayed working for him all these years.”

“Don’t get me wrong.  He’s the best kind of employer – friend too.  It’s just . . .” Candy seemed at a loss for words.

“He always seemed like a good father too.  I’ve never seen him hit Jamie.”

“Is that what you think makes a man a good father?  Not beating his kids?”

Griff didn’t have to think about that.  “Sure would have improved my stepfather.”

Candy chuckled.  “That’s true.  But I’m not saying Ben Cartwright’s not a good father.  It’s just he’s a strong man who casts a big shadow.  Hard to grow into a strong man under that shadow.

“Is that why the oldest son ran away from home?”

Candy laughed again, not the laugh of a man enjoying himself. Just one who wanted to be distracted.  “I wouldn’t say Adam ran away from home.  He was past thirty you know.  He was just a man with his own dreams.  The fact that he waited so long says something about the bonds in that family.  He followed his father’s dream for a long time.  Took him a while to admit to himself it wasn’t his.”

“Sounds like you know him pretty well. “  Griff envied this oldest son who was free to roam the earth at will while Griff was chained to the very place he’d run from.

“Know Adam?  Not really.  I kind of steered clear the few times he came to visit.  Tried to make sure things ran smoothly so the family could have time together without worrying about whether the ranch was falling apart.  It meant so much to them to have him there, even for a short time.  I never really got to know him, but I understood him.  He did what I probably would have done in his place.”

“But you’ve stayed.”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to say.  Ben Cartwright’s a good man to work for.  A good man to have for a friend.  But it would’ve been more than I could do to be my own man growing up with him as a father.”  Candy paused, then said thoughtfully,   “But I watched Joe do it.  I watched him become his father’s partner.  And given time he would have given that ranch the future his father envisioned.”

The use of the words “would have” didn’t escape Griff.  He reached out in the darkness and put his hand over his friend’s forearm. All he could do was repeat what he’d said before, with as much conviction as he could muster.   “We’ll find him Candy.  I swear.  It’s not too late.  We’ll find him.”

Thursday - May 20

The storm cleared during the night but left them without tracks to follow.  They could do nothing but follow Candy’s plan and head for Mexico, hoping they’d find a sign of Reinhardt along the way.

Leaving the temporary shelter, they set out to look for water.  They picked their way through the dust-choked yard.  Eddies of sand, left over from the storm swirled in the air, stinging their eyes and catching in their throats.

It was then they found the wagon.

It was in the ramshackle equipment shed in back of the house.  And it was the wagon they’d been following.  One of the barn’s sides and most of the roof had caved in leaving the wagon open to view once they approached from the west side.  The wolf was there on the side – painted on the rolled canvas as Elsbeth had suggested it might be.

Griff could sense Candy’s almost palpable fear as they ran to the barn.  It wasn’t a good sign  Reinhardt had abandoned the wagon.  Wasn’t likely he was hauling Joe around in the open.  Griff could only hope they’d met someone else here.  Someone driving something in which Joe could be hidden from sight.  But when they got closer that hope died.

The smell was unmistakable.  It hung in the air, a cloying odor that assaulted the senses.  The smell of death -- coming from the wagon.  Candy stopped short as though he’d hit a barrier.  He stood there seemingly unable to move.  He sagged against what remained of the barn wall and pounded his fist in anger, frustration, disappointment – everything Griff felt himself.

Taking a deep breath and bracing himself for what lay ahead, Griff knew what he had to do.  Knew what he owed Candy.  He put his hand on Candy’s forearm and said, “Stay here.  I’ll check it out.”

When Candy seemed ready to follow, Griff couldn’t keep himself from almost screaming his insistence,  “Stay here.”  Candy stayed.

His stomach clenched against a churning fear, Griff approached the wagon with Charles running ahead.  Griff watching the dog jump into the wagon seeming not to have a care in the world.  Everything was just an interesting smell to him.  He probably wouldn’t even relate what was left in the wagon to the man who never had a harsh word for him and who knew just where to scratch behind his ears.

Griff was unsteady on his feet as he climbed into the back of the wagon.  The stench inside was overwhelming.  He tied his bandanna over his nose and mouth just has he had during the sandstorm.  He felt tears in his eyes for the first time.  Tears he hadn’t had for Joe at the funeral.

There’d been nothing Griff could have done to prevent what had happened to Joe that day on his way home with Walt.  But that wasn’t true here.  If Griff had been smarter or stronger, if he’d told Clem and Ben what he’d suspected, if he’d been able to track like Candy, if he’d asked the right questions of the right people in Banshee Wells when they were so close . . . There were a dozen what ifs and Griff was behind all of them.  They could have saved Joe.  And they hadn’t.

Griff swiped his sleeve over his eyes and steeled himself to do this thing he had to do for Candy so Candy wouldn’t have to see the body of his best friend for the second time in three weeks.  The wagon contained an empty bunk, a small water barrel and a few boxes too small to hold a body.  But Charles had already located the source of the odor.  He was scratching at the bottom of the wagon drawing Griff’s eyes to a hasp held closed with a padlock.  Griff was about to break the hasp with the butt of his rifle when he realized the lock hadn’t been locked shut.  He pulled it out and with only slight hesitation, pulled open the lid that covered the false bottom of the wagon.

* * *

“Candy!”  He yelled, knowing what he’d found didn’t mean Joe was alive.  Didn’t mean there was hope.  So he tried to keep the hope out of his voice but he knew it was there.  “Candy, it’s the dog.  The dog he got in Carson City.  Not Joe. “

Griff walked rapidly back to where Candy was standing.  He still didn’t want Candy to see inside the wagon.   Didn’t want him to see the coffin-like space where Joe must have been confined for so many days.  It would haunt Griff.  No need for it to haunt Candy too.

He was almost at Candy’s side when something shot past him.  Something about the size and color of a small raccoon, but faster.  A fraction of a second later Charles raced by in full pursuit.  Griff knew calling him back would have no effect.   As Griff started to run after him, Candy grabbed his arm.  “Don’t wear yourself out.  You know he’ll come back.”

Griff shook Candy off and called over his shoulder as he ran after Charles. “There’s bound to be a few hungry coyotes out there.  He’s liable to get himself in trouble.”

Griff saw Charles racing up a steep trail and into some rocks.    The last thing Griff wanted to do was use what little energy he had chasing a mischievous dog.  Chances were Candy was right.  Charles would get tired and come back.  But there was the chance he’d run into some critter he couldn’t handle and would need Griff to bail him out.

Griff was winded as he got to the top of the trail to find Charles eagerly digging at a pile of rocks.  It looked like the critter, whatever it was, had taken refuge in some kind of crevice or maybe a mine entrance blocked by a landslide.  Charles was up on the top of the five-foot pile obviously believing his quarry was just on the other side of this barrier.

“Give it up Charles.  Whatever it was out-smarted you.  Come along.”

Griff turned to go down the trail, expecting Charles to actually come along.  When he didn’t, Griff snapped in exasperation.  “Charles, here.”

When Charles continued to ignore him in his frantic efforts to get to whatever he’d chased into the rocky shelter, it was all Griff could manage not to take two weeks of frustration out on the dog.  He reached up and grabbed Charles by the scruff of the neck and hauled him off the rocks.  He gave him a little shake and instead of letting him down, tucked him under his arm and walked back down the trail.

About half way down, he figured he’d broken the dog’s fascination with whatever wild thing he’d been chasing.  But when he set him on his own four legs, Charles tore back up the trail.  Griff was furious.  He let his fury carry him back up the little trail where he found Charles was right back to digging at the same hole near the top of the slide.  Griff grabbed the dog again, not taking care with how he grabbed him.  “Charles, godammit. I’ve got better things to do than chase you around to keep you outta trouble.” Instead of looking apologetic about his misbehavior, Charles wriggled free and went back to digging.

Griff had not only failed to take care in how he grabbed Charles, but he’d also been careless about how he placed his feet.  When he made a futile grab at Charles, his feet went out from under him and he tumbled to the right of the slide.  He sat there for a moment, too exhausted to haul himself up.  He tried to collect himself.  He had no right to take his anxiety out on the dog.  Charles had been a trooper.  Maybe he deserved a little fun.

So he sat quietly for a moment, watching the dog’s ineffective efforts to dig his way into the wherever it was his quarry had hidden itself.  Too late, Griff realized his efforts weren’t all that ineffectual.  Before he could get himself over to grab him, Charles disappeared.

As Griff scrambled up the rocks, he hoped  wherever Charles had landed, he’d be able to climb back out.  The last thing Griff wanted to do was pull away five feet of boulders and rocks to go in and fetch him.

He called Charles as he started to widen the hole.  But Charles wasn’t listening.  He was barking furiously as though inviting Griff to join the fun.  He’d cleared a two-foot gap before he realized what Charles was barking at.

* * *

Candy heard Griff yelling his name from somewhere up the trail his fool dog had taken after that varmint.  Damn, if Griff had gotten himself hurt chasing after the dog . . .  Candy trotted up the trail, resenting the energy he was expending.

He almost collapsed under the burden of his fatigue when he reached the top of the trail and saw Griff frantically clearing rocks from the top of a rockslide.  He could hear Charles barking inside.  That damn dog.  Now they were going to waste time and what precious little strength they had left getting that stupid dog out of some hole he’d fallen into chasing a varmint.

However anger and fatigue were forgotten when Griff turned at his approach.  “I think it’s Joe.  He won’t answer but it’s got to be him.”

Griff had managed to clear a hole just big enough to crawl through but as he started in, Candy roughly pushed him aside and wriggled in himself.

Chapter 25

Thursday - May 20

He woke again, or thought he had.  His body had shut down, so low on fuel he could no longer think coherently.  He knew his life force was ebbing but one thought echoed through his brain.  He had to keep chipping at the rings.  He’d convinced himself when he finished and no longer needed his hand for hammering, he could squeeze his left hand through its shackle.

Without conscious thought, Joe found himself back at the wall, rock in hand, smashing at the ring on the left.  Over and over again, the rock came down, inexorably chipping at the ring and the stone around it.

He no longer knew whether he was sitting or standing, awake or asleep and still he pounded, driven by the need to escape his chains.  Strange visions paraded through his food-deprived brain, people, places, his beloved horse, appearing and disappearing at will.  He struggled to focus on them, struggled to break out of the grip of the delusions, but he couldn’t.  And still he hammered at the ring.

Somewhere in the distance he heard a barking, accompanied by a frenzied digging.  Coyotes?  Trying to get into the cave?  Joe rallied a bit, focusing on the barking, wondering if he could fight off a coyote if it broke through to his prison, knowing at some level that he couldn’t.

And then even that thought was gone, whirled away by another image.  He had the strange idea  the cat was back.  He tried to talk to the little animal but for some reason the cat was barking.

 Cat?  Barking?  Barking…why was the cat barking at him?  Was it a warning?  Stop barking, cat.

And still he continued the frenzied hammering.  Joe’s mind retreated to a dark corner, his body operated without conscious thought.  His last flicker of life and he would spend it in an effort to outwit his captor and escape to breathe the fresh air and feel the sun light on his face once again.

Why was the cat barking?

* * *

A voice forced itself into Joe’s retreat and he stopped the pounding long enough to listen.

Candy.  His friend, dead at the hands of Reinhardt the butcher.  Joe knew why Candy was there.  He wanted Joe to let go of his life and join him in the world of the dead.  Joe resisted the thought.  He couldn’t die now.  He had things to do.  Candy would have to understand.

"Candy?  No, I can’t leave now, Candy.  Got to get out of here.  Jamie’s in danger.  And Pa."

Again the familiar voice called his name, a gentle hand touched his cheek.  Joe flinched away from the touch, closing his eyes to shut out any vision of his friend’s face.

"No!  Candy, I’ve got to keep at this ring.  Can’t stop now.  Go away, I can’t die now.  No!"

A strong hand gripped his  and easily wrenched the rock from his weakened fingers.  Candy’s voice urged him to stop, to listen, to wake up.  Joe groped for his rock, determined to ignore this latest delusion.  He knew he had to be strong for Jamie’s sake.

"Go away, Candy.  I can’t come with you now.  I’ve got to get out of here.  Is the cat still here?  Barking again?  Candy, the cat’s barking, make it go away.  I’m sorry, old friend, but you have to let me stay here.  I’ve got to warn Pa."

He scrabbled frantically for his lost tool, trying to ward off the warm hands that clutched at him, ignoring the panicked voice that called his name and begged him to wake up.  He knew if he stopped to listen to Candy, he would die.  Joe was determined not to die now.  Maybe Candy was angry with him for letting him get killed.  Joe had to convince him he was sorry, to make him go away and leave him alone to get himself free.

“I’m sorry Candy.  I couldn’t stop him.  I didn’t know he was going to kill you.  I promised to settle the score, but I couldn’t.  It’s my fault he killed you.  And I couldn’t even get him back.  I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m . . .

Chapter 26

Thursday - May 20

I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m . . .

Candy held Joe tight, trying to reassure him, trying to stop him from draining the last of his strength in a mindless struggle.

Joe’s voice trailed off but he didn’t stop fighting to free himself from Candy’s grasp.  He’d been talking to him, even speaking Candy’s name, yet didn’t seem to know he was there.  Gaunt, filthy, muscles wasted to nothing, yet fighting like a mad man to get free and go back to his ceaseless pounding.

Candy encircled Joe with his arms, forcing his body into stillness.   “Joe, look at me.  You’re safe now.  Come on Joe.  You’re safe.”

Gradually Joe ceased his struggle and opened his eyes.

“Candy? “

“It’s me Joe.  And Griff.  You hold on.  We’re getting you out of here.”  Candy gently loosened his hold, but kept his left arm firmly around Joe, letting his friend’s head rest against his shoulder, stroking his bearded cheek gently with his right hand while he tried to reassure him.

Joe reached over with his left hand to touch Candy’s face.  Candy could hear the rattle of a chain as he moved.

“Candy, I’m sorry.”

“Nothing to be sorry for Joe.  You hang on.  You’re gonna make it.  I’m not gonna let you give up.”   Candy brushed a filthy lock of hair away from Joe’s eyes.  “Joe, I’m not dead.  You’re not dead.  We’re all going to get out of this alive.  I’ll have you home eating Hop Sing’s cooking in no time.”

 “Not dead?   But it’s so cold.  And dark.”  His voice trailed off again, but he kept his eyes open.

Candy turned a little so Joe could look toward the light that was coming through the little passage being at the far edge of the rock slide.  The indirect sunlight seemed to mean something to Joe, even though he had to blink his eyes against it.  “Alive,” he whispered.  “We’re alive.”

Candy pulled at the chain trailing from Joe’s left wrist.  It was attached to something solid above his head.  He tried the chains he found at Joe’s ankles.   Also attached to something that had no give.

“Griff.”  Candy’s voice was urgent.  Griff had renewed his digging once he’d heard Joe talking, allowing still more light into Joe’s dark prison.  He stopped pulling rocks down to listen.  “He’s in a bad way.  Bring up one of the horses.   Food, blankets, a lantern.  And find some tools.  We need something to pry these chains loose.”  When Griff didn’t leave immediately, it was all Candy could do to keep his voice under control.  “Go.  We’ll be all right.  Go.”  He heard Griff take off down the trail.

Candy tried to both talk to Joe and figure out how they were going to get him out of there.  When he searched for the chain on Joe’s right wrist, Joe winced in pain.  There was no cuff on that wrist but the hand was swollen, and tender to the touch.  The wrist itself felt deeply abraded and caked with dried blood.   Candy could only figure Joe had pulled that hand through the cuff.  Had to have broken or dislocated something doing it.  Candy felt admiration and nausea at the same time.  God knows what else he’d find when he had enough light to do a thorough examination.

He supported Joe with one arm and with the other he tried to find where the chains were attached and to what.  He didn’t want to let loose of Joe.  He couldn’t let him slip back into his delusions.

Candy ran his hand along the leg chains until he got to the rings where they were attached to the wall.  One ring had been destroyed and another was misshapen as though it had been bashed with something heavy.  That’s what Joe had been doing.  Bashing it with whatever rocks he could reach.  He hadn’t given up.

And that’s why Candy hadn’t given up.  He knew it wasn’t in Joe to lie down and die.  Until he found the body – the body he’d only a few minutes ago feared was in the wagon, Candy would have kept looking.  No matter how long it took.  And that was the evil intelligence behind the burned shack.   Reinhardt must have known no one would give up on Joe Cartwright without a body to prove he was dead.

There was nothing he could do for Joe until Griff got back.  Nothing but keep him hanging on.  “Joe, you were doing a grand job on those rings.  You didn’t even need us.  You’d have gotten free on your own.”

Joe raised his eyes to meet Candy’s and Candy was sure he saw just the barest ghost of the Joe Cartwright grin.  “You’re right Candy.  ‘Nother a week or so and I’d ’ve been outta here.”  With that Joe collapsed into Candy’s arms.

Candy didn’t try to rouse him.  His breathing was shallow but regular.  Might as well let him sleep until Griff came back with some food.  As long as Candy held onto him, he’d know he was no longer alone.

* * *

Griff’s fatigue left him as he flew down the trail.   His boots sounded a rhythmic pattern as he ran and with each footfall the voice in his head said,  Alive, Alive, Alive.  Joe was alive.  They hadn’t been too late.  Almost, perhaps.   But almost wouldn’t matter once they got some food into him and got him to a doctor.

He caught up the little bay mare, wishing now they hadn’t spent time while waiting out the storm removing the saddles and packs.  He filled a sack with food, cooking utensils and medical supplies.  He stuffed another with their two lanterns, the ropes from both their saddles, blankets, the canteens, the hatchet and a few other things they might need.  He was about to tie the two sacks together and throw them over the horse when he realized they might need a horse to do some pulling.  Letting loose of the mare, he saddled up the strongest of the geldings and draped the sacks over the saddle.  He had no idea where he was going to find the tools Candy needed, but he figured it was more important to get Joe warm and fed while they figured out how to get him free.

 He was leading the gelding outside when, as an after thought, he filled another two sacks with some of the firewood that had been left stacked on the side of the shack.  When the last occupant had abandoned the place he’d apparently thought the wood stove worth carting away but not the firewood he’d cut for it.   Griff imagined firewood was a valuable commodity out where tumbleweeds were more common than hard wood trees.  But a failed miner or whoever had been here last would only have so much room to pack up his life as he fled for greener pastures.  And Griff imagined most places would constitute greener pastures compared to this God-forsaken dust bowl.

* * *

Griff held Joe’s head steady as he raised the can of peaches to his lips so he could take small sips of the juice.  As soon as the first of the sweet syrup touched his tongue, Joe tried to grab the can from Griff and gulp down the contents.  Griff felt bad about holding him back but he knew Joe’s stomach, so long without food, would rebel if it had to handle too much at first.  Joe’s feeble attempts to wrest the can out of Griff’s hands were stymied by his almost useless right hand and the iron cuff that weighed down the left.

“Easy Joe.  I’ll get a fire going and heat you up something that’ll be easier on your stomach.”   When Joe tried to protest, Griff reminded him, “Remember how sick I got after that supper your Pa bought me that first day after I got out of prison.  Candy warned me my stomach couldn’t handle everything I was putting into it.  But I hadn’t had real food in so long I couldn’t stop myself.  Most of that meal ended up decorating my boots two minutes after I stepped outdoors and doubled over the hitching rail.  We can’t afford to have that happen to you.  Anything gets in you better stay in.”

By the time Candy was finished using the lantern to examine the mine timbers and the chains Joe had finished the juice and was working slowly on some slices of fruit.  Candy knelt down and tipped the can to view the contents in the light of the lantern.   Three quarters of the fruit remained in the can.  Griff had figured Joe’s stomach could take half.   Or maybe he just hadn’t had the heart to cut him off.  Candy shook his head and took the can out of Griff’s hand.  “Sorry Joe, no more for now.  Got to see if you can keep this down.”

Joe started to object but his protest was cut off as he doubled over in pain, his stomach cramping in protest at having to work so hard when it hadn’t been used to working at all.  Candy grabbed him from Griff and held him up as he tried to calm him with his voice.  “Easy Joe, easy.  Take a deep breath.  We don’t want you losing anything.”

After the first spasms passed, Joe was able to sit up straight with Candy’s help.  The clenched teeth and fine tremors that shook Joe’s body let Candy know the spasms hadn’t stopped.  But they seemed to be less severe and, more importantly, they hadn’t been bad enough to make him throw up the little he’d gotten down.

He looked over at Griff who was watching Joe closely, a combination of concern and guilt on his face.   “He’ll be all right.  Get a fire going and some of that rice cooked.  Hop Sing always says rice is good for a weak stomach.

* * *

Little more than half an hour later Joe was sitting wrapped in their blankets, shoveling rice into his mouth as fast as Griff would let him.  He’d insisted on feeding himself despite the hindrance of the heavy cuff on his wrist.  He couldn’t hold the tin cup though.  His right hand was too badly damaged.  Griff was able to slow down his eating by filling the cup less than half full each time.  Joe had scared him with his reaction to the peaches.   Griff left the pot out by the fire in the clearing down the trail from the mine entrance.  The time it took for him to walk outside and refill the cup forced Joe to slow down without forcing Griff to sit there and watch him.  It was too hard to see Joe’s gaunt body and look into his hungry eyes and withhold food even for good reason.

Surprisingly enough, Charles seemed to understand. He’d pushed himself up against Joe and refused to leave him.  Once Joe was conscious enough to realize he was there, he seemed to get some comfort from his company.  Griff had tried to pull him away when Joe started on the rice.  Charles was a shameless beggar and occasional food thief.  The last thing he wanted was for Charles to be snatching food from Joe.  But the dog hadn’t even tried.  He’d sat there with his head on Joe’s knee making no attempt to interfere with Joe’s eating.

After slowly doling out four of the partial cupfuls, Griff brought in some warm water and bandages.  Joe didn’t want to stop eating but he didn’t fight against Griff’s assurance that he’d get more in a few minutes if what he’d had stayed down.  Griff started with the raw and bleeding skin around Joe’s left wrist.  Joe’s arm was so thin by this time, the cuff slid back far enough to allow Griff to bandage the entire forearm.  They hadn’t figured a way to get the metal cuff off, but at least the bandages would cushion Joe’s skin against it.  Especially now that he’d have no reason to be pulling on it.

Griff thought Joe would have been more comfortable to have Candy taking care of him but Candy was more concerned with figuring how to defeat the chains, padlocks and iron rings that kept Joe imprisoned.    The system was strongly built – designed to keep a determined man from escaping even when he wasn’t guarded.  It had been effective -- as shown by the bones that shared Joe’s imprisonment.   He interrupted, as Griff was finishing up the bandaging on Joe’s right hand and wrist.  “We need some tools. I’m gonna tear that cabin and wagon apart and see what I can find.”

“No” Griff’s vehemence startled everyone, including himself.  “I mean, I’ll do it.  Maybe Charles can help.”  He caught Joe’s eye as he spoke; his expression said he didn’t want Candy to see that wagon either.

Joe spoke up.  “Candy, I think Griff here’s tired of acting nursemaid.  Let him go.”

Griff got up, grateful Joe understood.  Or maybe neither of them really understood.  It was just a feeling they shared that Candy didn’t need to know everything Joe had gone through.  As he turned to leave the cavern, Joe spoke up.

“He had an ax Griff.  Good sized one.  Probably tossed it someplace in or near the cabin.  Could have taken it with him, I suppose, but it’s worth looking for.”

Griff nodded.  “I’ll find it.”  He called Charles to come along which Charles did without his usual enthusiasm.  He seemed reluctant to leave Joe.

Griff found nothing useful in the cabin or around it.  Maybe Reinhardt had taken the ax with him.  He dreaded going into the barn but something might have been left in the wagon.  After all, Reinhardt hadn’t expected Joe to get out to take advantage of anything left behind.

When the barn itself yielded nothing. Griff approached the wagon with trepidation.  He circled around it first.  And found the ax.   Perhaps Reinhardt hadn’t been so confident of Joe’s prison after all.   He’d used the ax to render the wagon useless by chopping off most of the wagon tongue, disabling the brake and chopping through most of the spokes on both wheels on the far side.  Griff had been lucky the wagon hadn’t collapsed under him when he’d checked it the first time.

But risky or not, the wagon was the most likely place to find something useful.  He pulled the barrels and boxes out of the back and checked them carefully.  Other than a bag of dried beans and some moldy flour in one box, nothing.  He used the barrels to brace the wagon in case the wheels buckled.   Ignoring the stench of the rotting dog, he climbed inside and looked around carefully.  He would have liked to save the thin straw mattress on the bunk but it was contaminated with the smell of death.  He tossed it out and upended the bunk.  More nothing.  Reinhardt must have packed the second horse with everything in the wagon worth taking.

The only other possibility was the compartment under the flooring.  Maybe there was another compartment in addition to the one where Joe had been imprisoned.   There was nothing with obvious hinges like the prison box.  Griff took the ax and chopped through a floorboard near the far wall.  Nothing.  He attacked another part of the flooring with more vigor.  And suddenly the need for destruction took over...He applied the ax to the wagon with a vengeance with no real expectation of finding anything...Every time the ax bit into the planking, he was striking a blow at the man who’d first terrified him in prison and then reached out to destroy the family who’d given him refuge.  Not a refuge he’d appreciated it was true, but a safe harbor from prison all the same.  The Wolf had showed him there was no safety anywhere, for anyone.

Griff’s hot blood blocked the fatigue that had threatened to bring him down for days, but when his hands started to blister, he realized he was a fool to disable himself just for the scant pleasure of destroying Joe’s prison box.  Taking Joe back to his family was the best vengeance they could hope for and he was going to need all his strength to help do it   He’d already rendered the compartment unrecognizable and that was more than enough.

He didn’t know where else to search for tools.  He didn’t even know if this had really been a mining camp or simply an elaborate cover for a hideout for Reinhardt’s gang.  He put a bridle on the little bay mare and rode a tour of the area.  He saw nothing that looked like a working mine although he did see what looked like a few test diggings.    It was near one of these holes that he found a pick with a partially burned handle.  Looked like some miner had warned himself with a little too much whiskey and gotten careless with his tools.  All in all, a sorry haul.

Chapter 27

Thursday - May 20

Joe looked up to see Griff entering the cramped confines of the cave.  He watched as the younger man dumped a load of supplies on the floor.  They all stared morosely at the pathetic little heap.  Griff had located Reinhardt’s axe, as well as the remnants of a pick, it’s handle half burned, but the metal head intact.  The only other things he had were the ropes from their saddles, the hatchet they used for firewood and his pocket knife.

Candy spoke first.  “That all?” he asked.  Joe heard the disappointment in his tone.

“I did the best I could,” Griff snapped, then flushed and dipped his head.  “Sorry, Candy.  I tore the place apart, I swear.”

Sensing his friends were letting their emotions get the better of them, Joe struggled to interject a lighter note.  “Tell you what, I’ll just kick back here and wait while one of you runs to the nearest town for some supplies. Oh and pick up a few more cans of peaches while you’re there, why don’t you?”  He managed a shaky laugh.

Candy and Griff laughed at the feeble joke, perhaps a shade too heartily.  “Sorry, Joe, I don’t think we have time to let you lie around here being lazy.  We’ve got to get you on your feet to do all those chores waiting for you at the Ponderosa.”

Joe favored him with the ghost of his former smile.  “I should have known you wouldn’t do those chores for me.  Even when I was dead, you wouldn’t do my work.”

Candy’s answering grin was wider, but his eyes were soft, and suspiciously bright with moisture. Turning back to the implements, they picked through the pile.

Joe sat quietly, listening to them discuss various options for attacking the chains, padlocks, or the beam itself, striving to listen to the conversation, but unable to completely focus his thoughts.  He found himself drifting in and out of a light sleep, without any real awareness of one state or the other.  Several times he caught Candy and Griff exchanging grim looks, but they never said anything, and he wasn’t capable of more speech to set their minds at ease.

A sharp metallic clang jerked him back to awareness, along with a fierce pain in his lacerated left wrist.  He couldn’t stop the cry that escaped his lips, and the noise stopped immediately.  Candy dropped to his knees, still holding the ax he’d been using to smash the point of the pick into the padlock.   The vibration had traveled from the padlock down the chain fastened to Joe’s manacle.

“Sorry, Joe.  I should have warned you.  Are you okay?”  He laid a gentle hand on Joe’s shoulder and Joe let the warmth seep into his cold body.

“Do what you have to do, I’ll be fine,” he whispered.

Candy eyed him warily.  “It’s going to hurt, Joe.  I can’t help but pull on that wrist when I’m pounding on the padlock.”

Griff spoke up.  “Candy, I can probably reach the padlock that’s holding the chain wrapped around the beam – smash it with the ax.”

Candy shook his head.  “If you managed that, we’d still have to take this padlock off or he’d be dragging around twenty feet of heavy chain and the padlock.”  He turned to Joe.  “But we could at least delay things by doing it that way.  You want us to try that first?”

Joe shook his head wearily, too tired to grasp more than a few words of Candy’s sentence.  He only knew that he would hurt, but it would mean freedom when it was over.  “Just get it over with,” he whispered.

He glanced up in time to see Griff staring down at him, pity in his gaze.  Fighting the tug of exhaustion he smiled weakly.  “Sorry, Griff.  Don’t mean to be a problem,” he muttered.

The pity vanished instantly, replaced by a gentle kindness.  “You’re not a problem, Joe.  We’ll have you out of here before you know it.”  He crouched down to Joe’s eye level. “You sing out if you need us to stop, or if you want anything.  Okay?”

Joe nodded and let his eyes close, lines of tension and fatigue etched deeply into the gaunt face.

Griff and Candy could see the knuckles of Joe’s left hand grow white and his shoulder knotted with tension as he waited for the return of the pain.  Griff took the ax from Candy’s hand, and motioned for him to stay with Joe.  He then stood and took over the chore of trying to demolish the heavy padlock.

Joe’s body jerked with each blow, but he didn’t utter another sound.  Candy slipped a protective arm around the frail shoulders and clasped them tightly.  With one hand he held the chain as close to the cuff as he could, struggling to cushion Joe from the worst of the vibration.

Joe opened his eyes once, only to meet a pair of worried eyes staring back at him.  He flickered an eye in the specter of a wink, and then he surrendered to the darkness, letting it roll over him and carry him away from his torment.  His body slipped deeper into Candy’s embrace and for a time the pain was gone.

Chapter 28

Thursday - May 20

Joe huddled by the fire.  Three blankets weren’t enough to ward off the chill that started deep in his bones.  He edged even closer to the small blaze, trying to get warmer without letting the blankets catch fire.  His head still swam dizzily if he moved too quickly and he’d had to borrow Griff’s hat to ward off the sunlight.  While the late afternoon sun failed to give him much warmth, it’s light had been an excruciating change after three weeks in the dark.  He’d needed a bandanna draped over the brim for additional protection.

He only had hazy memories of his removal from the cave.  Vague flashes of remembered pain, as they’d hacked at the padlock holding the shackles to chain locked to the beam overhead.  Their intense efforts to remove the rings holding the leg shackles had been blessedly lacking in the same pain.  He thought he remembered them breaking the last ring, but wasn’t sure how they’d accomplished the feat.

He glanced up to see Griff and Candy hovering worriedly.  They’d worn themselves out helping him.  Hell, they’d done themselves in before they’d even found him.  They both looked haggard and weary.  Joe couldn’t help a flicker of a grin at the picture they presented.  If someone stumbled on them, they’d be mistaken for indigent rustlers or thieves.

Joe knew what he owed his friends.  Without their persistence, he’d still be alone in that cave, his life flickering out.  He would never have been able to remove all the chains in time to save himself.    He struggled to put his thoughts in words, his voice still husky from his ordeal.

“I want to thank you both for what you’ve done.  If it hadn’t been for you. . .”  Joe’s voice cracked and he stopped.

“We didn’t do anything you wouldn’t have done for one of us, Joe.”  Candy was quick to step in.  He patted Joe’s shoulder as he stooped to pick up a tin cup full of weak broth he’d been warming.  Thrusting the cup at Joe, who took it gratefully, he caught Joe’s eyes.  “Anyway, it was young Griff here who had this fool notion you might be alive.  He insisted we keep moving so quickly.  He’s the one you need to thank.”

Joe nodded.  “Then its thanks to you Griff that my father knows I’m not dead.”

He intercepted the look that flashed between the other men.  “What?”

Griff ducked his head, refusing to meet Joe’s eyes.  Candy cleared his throat.  “He doesn’t know.”  He held up a hand to forestall Joe’s inarticulate protest.

Crouching in front of his friend, Candy peered directly into his eyes.  “Look, Joe.  I had no thoughts of you being alive when we left your father.  We were going after your killer, pure and simple.  Griff had nothing to go on but his knowledge of how Reinhardt operated in prison and he didn’t share it with me.  If he’d had any evidence at all, he would have told me at least.  It wasn’t until Reinhardt didn’t get rid of the wagon right away that Griff told me, and then only when I forced it out of him.  We still didn’t have any real evidence, not enough to risk giving your Pa false hope.  When we finally had something to go on, we were out of telegraph range and it was more important to get to you than to backtrack.”

Joe clutched the blankets around his naked body and struggled to stand up, swaying unsteadily as he looked at the two men, trying to project more strength than he felt.   “We’ve got to get out of here right away.  Reinhardt sent Pa a letter telling him I was still alive and I was dying here alone.  It’s gonna kill Pa if he gets that letter before he knows I’m safe.  Get the horses.”

Candy gripped Joe’s arm, holding him upright when he would have fallen and then gently forcing him to sit back down.  “We can’t head out yet, Joe.  We haven’t even managed to get those chains off your ankles and you’re still wearing that bracelet.  You aren’t in any shape to ride, even if we could get you on a horse.”

Griff stepped up a little closer.  “We might be able to rig a travois of some kind.  You know, using the planks from that wagon. It would get us on the road a little faster.”

Candy’s glare was fiercely protective.  “He’s in no shape to be traveling, Griff.  We’re staying here.”

Joe shook his head.  “No, we’re leaving.  I’ve got to get to a telegraph.  Griff, see what you can do about a travois.  I’d rather ride, but I can’t.”  He turned to Candy, the fire dying out of his voice, his eyes pleading.  “You know what it’ll do to my father to get that letter? I’ve got to let him know where I am.”

Candy’s face was a study in contradiction.  He knew as well as Joe how Ben Cartwright was going to take the news in Reinhardt’s letter, but he also knew how weak Joe really was.  Joe watched the thoughts flitting over the other man’s face, but held his tongue.  Better to let Candy make up his own mind.

Finally, Candy spoke.  “We’ll go, after you’ve had a night’s sleep and as much food as you can keep down.  We’ll use that time to try and get those shackles off.  Make things a lot easier.  We busted the pick breaking open the padlock in the cave.  The ax barely lasted through that last ring.  Griff’s got a little experience picking locks.  Lets have him give it a try with his pocket knife out here in the sunlight.  Get you free of those chains; we’ll figure where to go from there”

Joe’s face darkened, and his eyes flashed.  “Then get started.  You don’t know what it’s like to be chained up like a dog . . .” He stopped and flushed, shooting a quick glance at Griff.

After a year in prison, Griff, of them all, surely knew what it was like to be chained.  “I’m sorry, Griff, I shouldn’t have said that,” Joe said wearily.  He sat forward, closer to the fire, rubbing a hand over his grimy face.  “I’m not thinking right.”

Griff shrugged, tossing a quick grin down at the other man.  “It’s okay, Joe.  Not something I like to talk about.  But that stay in prison might come in handy now.  When we planned that little riot your father got caught up in, I learned how to pick a few of the locks.  Now, let’s see about these.”

Joe was grateful for Griff’s understanding.  He mutely waited while Griff inspected the chains that weighed him down.  While Griff busied himself working on the lock, Candy began to gather the materials needed for a travois.  It was obvious Joe wasn’t up for a ride of any length.  Even if they were able to completely free his legs, he couldn’t sit a horse.

Several hours later, Candy had almost completed a rough travois.  Griff had succeeded in removing one set of the shackles around Joe’s legs, but the other remained firmly in place.

“I’m sorry, Joe,” he’d said quietly.  “The second set was more complicated than the first.”

Joe had shrugged off his disappointment.  “At least you got one set off.  We’ll get the others off too. There’s got to be something else we can do,” he replied evenly.

The three men eyed the chains in disgust.  They’d tried hacking at the chain with the hatchet, only to have the head separate from the handle.  It had been too small to accomplish anything, and they had no other tools to work with.

In desperation, Joe finally issued an ultimatum.  He wanted to be on the road to a telegraph as soon as possible, shackles or no shackles.  His need to ease his father’s pain took precedence over any discomfort or inconvenience to himself.   The others gave in reluctantly and they began the final preparations for the  morning’s journey.

“Saw a lot of coyote tracks around that spring,” Candy remarked casually, as he returned with four brimming canteens.  “You know, the one feeding the little trickle in the cave, Joe.  It must be one of the only water sources in the area.”  He turned to Griff, and added, “It’s a good thing Charles seems so stuck on guarding Joe.  Those coyotes could be trouble for a small dog like him.”

Joe’s eyes grew thoughtful, as he considered Candy’s words.  “Guess that’s why my little friend had to come visit so often,” he mused.  He ducked his head, not meeting the other men’s eyes.  “Either of you seen a little cat around here?  Don’t know what he looks like, but he gave me something to talk to while I was in there.”

Griff chuckled.  “Your little friend did more’n keep you company, Joe.  He’s the reason we found you.  A sandstorm wiped away all the tracks to the cave.  If Charles hadn’t taken off after that cat we might have ridden on and missed you completely.  At best it might have taken us a day or two to find you.”  Griff didn’t voice the thought that followed but Joe could see it in his face. And that might have been too late. "That cat saved probably your life.”

Joe smiled softly.  “Seems to me I ought to return the favor.  I’ve got to block off the entrance again before we leave.  That’ll give him a way to get to water without having to worry about the coyotes.”

Candy started to sputter a protest.  Filling in the cave entrance would be a physical impossibility for Joe, and not much easier for him or Griff and they all knew it.  But Griff put a quick hand on his arm to stop his words.

“Least we can do Joe,” he said quietly.  “I know what it’s like to have a debt hangin’ over your head.  You won’t rest easy leaving here thinkin’ those coyotes got your little friend when there’s something we coulda done.”   He looked over at Candy,  “Candy, you finish with the travois, looks like it needs a little more work.  I’ll go take care of the cave.”

Joe shot him a grateful look, while Candy just shook his head in disgust.

Candy’s voice made his displeasure plain, but he determinedly changed the subject, knowing when he’d been outmaneuvered, or at the very least, outvoted.   “Then while he’s draining his energy, you can just be building yours.  Rest and eat.  You promise to do that and I’ll let Griff go along with your foolish whims.  It’s gonna be a long trip; you need to build up your strength.   In a couple of weeks you’ll be off my hands and Hop Sing can work on fattening you up.”  He patted his own lean stomach.  “I think I could use a little fattening up myself, and as for Griff – Hop Sing was worried about him being on the thin side before this all happened.”

Joe shook his head.  “I can’t go back yet,” he said quietly.

Candy understood immediately what Joe was getting at, but that didn’t mean he was going to agree.  He knelt down to look Joe in the eye again.  “I know how you feel Joe.  You’re not going to rest easy as long as Reinhardt’s out there.  But there’s nothing you can do in your condition.  We’ll all go back, rest up and then go after him.”

Again Joe simply shook his head.  “I can’t go home until Reinhardt’s caught.  He’s out there somewhere, waiting to hurt my family.   I have no choice.  I can’t go back until he’s stopped for good.”

Candy tried in vain to disguise the pity in his voice as he answered quietly.  “Look at yourself, Joe.  Reinhardt could take you out with one hand.  You want to give him the satisfaction of finishing the job he started?  Griff and I’ll go after him, if that’s what you want, but you have to go home.”

Joe gazed back at him dispassionately.  He noticed Griff standing back, decidedly unsure about whether to jump into yet another argument.  “I’ll rest in the first town we come to that has a telegraph, but only until my father arrives. I know he’ll need to see me.  But I’ve seen Reinhardt’s eyes.  He’s a madman who wants to kill my little brother and hurt my father.  If we go all the way to the Ponderosa the track will be too cold by time we get back to it.  Candy, I’d like your help.  And Griff’s.  But this is my fight.”

Candy muttered something under his breath, but when he caught Joe’s look, he repeated it more loudly.   “Your father will take you back to the Ponderosa if he has to hog tie you to do it.  And I won’t try to stop him.”  He stood up with his arms folded across his chest, his jaw tight.  “Look, Joe.  I can understand how you feel, but it’s too dangerous for you to be out hunting Reinhardt right now.  Go home.  Guard your family there.  But you can’t go out looking for the man in the shape you’re in right now.  And you won’t be ready in two weeks either.”

Griff’s voice cut off Joe’s angry protest, earning him fierce glares from both men.  “Joe’s right.”

“What?”  Candy’s face was a study in exasperation. “Are you just determined to disagree with every decision I make today?”

Griff moved forward diffidently, not wanting to intrude on a quarrel between these two men yet again  “I’ve seen Reinhardt in action.  Joe has too.   He thinks he’s invulnerable.”  Griff shuddered slightly.  “I used to think he was, that’s for sure.  He needs to be stopped while we have a chance of finding him.  If he was gonna go after Joe’s family right away, going back home would be the smartest thing to do.  But that’s not the way he works.   Ben Cartwright wasn’t his only target, probably just the easiest to find after eight years in prison.  Or maybe he just liked the idea of taking down the most powerful man first.  Joe’s father testified against Reinhardt’s brother.  Well, someone sentenced him.  Someone executed him.  And someone testified against Reinhardt at the trial that got him his three life sentences.  Someone sentenced him.   He’ll have a long list and he knows the Cartwrights aren’t going to run.  He can wait.  Take out a few others then hit at the Cartwrights again when they don’t expect it.  He’s a loose cannon out there, Candy.  We’ve got to go get him.”

Joe was grateful for Griff’s support.  He turned a challenging stare at Candy. “Well?” he asked, trying to keep his voice neutral.

Candy threw his hands in the air.   “If Griff agrees with you, . . . Hell.   You both know him.  All’s I know about is the seven bodies he’s left behind.   And that’s assuming Walt, Jenks, the two prison guards, those two deputies and that prospector are the only killing he’s done this time out.  I’d kind of like the three of us not to add to his count.  Joe, I know you.  How righteous would you feel if one of us got killed because you just aren’t strong enough to hold your own?”

Candy turned and started to walk off but then turned back with an afterthought.  “And think of this.  If you don’t go back, your Pa won’t.  You’ll be putting his life on the block too.”

Having made his point, he left Joe to think on it.

Griff looked after Candy’s retreating form.  “Is he right about your Pa?  From what I’ve seen, seems like he could be.”

Joe smiled ruefully at Griff.  “Yeah, he’s right.  Pa will try to hogtie me and drag me home like Candy said.  If that doesn’t work, he’ll come along.   And if we leave before he meets up with us, he’ll follow.”

“So you’ll be going back after all?”

Joe couldn’t read the feeling behind Griff’s words - relief, disappointment?  “What do you think Griff?”

“Like I said, we need to go after Reinhardt before he disappears.  And from what I’ve seen of your Pa, he can hold his own.  We know one place Reinhardt will be in a couple of weeks and we can’t afford to miss our chance.”

Joe looked up in surprise.  Griff just looked back, his gray/blue eyes saying he knew Joe would figure it out.  And he did.  “Here.  He’ll come here.  Or at least he’ll take up a position to watch through field glasses.  He’ll want to see Pa find my body.   If he didn’t send a map with the first note, he’ll follow up with one once he’s sure it’s too late.”

Griff nodded.  “So we’d better all be in shape to take him on.”  He stood straight up and stretched.   “And now, I’ve got that entrance to fill in.  At least I can tell Candy it wasn’t just to protect your little friend.  Be nice if Reinhardt couldn’t tell through his field glasses or spyglass anyone had been here.  We’ll have to clear everything away from this campsite too.”

Joe sat silently after Griff left, wondering briefly if he was doing the right thing, pushing to go after Reinhardt when they were all in such bad shape.  Wasn’t likely five or six hard days on the trail followed by a week in some dingy little town would put any of them in prime condition.  Then the thought of Reinhardt’s cold eyes met and mingled with a picture of Jamie, head thrown back, laughing at some joke.  Joe shivered.  Right thing?  He was doing the only thing.

Friday - May 21

They rose before first light and were on their way before dawn.  Joe squinted through the protective shadow of the bandanna, taking one last look at the scene of his torment, wishing he’d never have to see it again, knowing he had to come back.  And then it was gone, disappearing around a bend in the trail.  He leaned back and braced himself against the jolting of the travois.

<<Won’t be long before we get to a telegraph.  Maybe the letter was delayed in the mail.  Reinhardt might have waited a couple of days once he got to Mexico.  Not wanting Pa to get to me too soon.  He did want to make sure I would be dead.>>

A surge of triumph flooded his tired body.  <<I’ve beaten the bastard.  He didn’t win.>>

His strength spent, his body racked with pain and weariness, Joe fell into an exhausted sleep.

Chapter 29

Friday - May 21

The waterhole glittered enticingly in the afternoon sunlight.  The dirty, tired men were drawn to it irresistibly.  Griff made a beeline for the water’s edge, shedding his clothes as he went, Charles at his heels.  Joe gazed after him, suddenly drowning in a surge of envy as he watched the lean figure dive into the water.  If he tried that right now, he’d sink like a stone, weighted down as he was with the shackles and chains.

Candy helped him from the travois and matched him pace for pace all the way to the waterhole.  He unbuckled his gun belt and started to pull off his boots but hesitated with the second one half-way off.

“Looks good, doesn’t it?” Candy remarked, his voice deceptively casual.  “I’ll help you get cleaned up.  You’ll feel better getting the stink of Reinhardt off you.

Joe hunkered down by the water’s edge, wondering how far he could go in without sinking.   He gave Candy a wan smile.  “You take care of yourself first.  At least I don’t have any filthy clothes to wash.”

There’d been nothing to replace the long johns he’d ripped off in the cave.  He couldn’t have gotten pants over the shackles anyway.   And now he crouched here, naked but for a blanket and borrowed hat, tempted to just dive into the water and hope his friends could pull him back up before he drowned.  But realistically all he could expect was for Candy to bathe him like some kind of invalid.  He gritted his teeth in frustration.

Candy lingered, obviously not wanting to leave Joe by himself but just as obviously longing to join Griff in the water.  Joe forced a grin to his face.  “Get in there.  You’re a pretty scary sight.

His face clearly showing his worry, Candy stood, slowly removing the second boot and then unbuttoning his shirt.  While he was doing that, Griff splashed his way out of the water and headed for the horses, which were all drinking at the far end of the water.  Charles dashed after him, stopping only long enough to shake vigorously, splashing water all over Joe and Candy in the process.

Joe chuckled at the little dog’s antics.  “Now that you’re all wet, you might as well get all the way in,”

Candy stripped off his shirt and tossed it on top of the boots, rifle and gunbelt.  He was unbuttoning his pants when Griff splashed back, carrying their two canvas buckets.

“Catch, Candy,” Griff yelled as he threw a full bucket at him.  Of course the bucket collapsed as Candy caught it, dousing him with the water inside.  Griff followed up by throwing the contents of the second bucket on Joe.  He quickly bent and refilled the bucket.  Before Joe could react, he’d been doused a second time. For just a moment, he felt a little of his old strength.  Tossing back the now-sodden blanket, he got up and launched himself at Griff who was bent over, filling the bucket for the third time.

Griff dodged and Joe ended up slicing through the water, momentarily wondering how long he’d be anchored under water before his nursemaids figured out he couldn’t surface by himself.  And then he didn’t care.  The feel of the cool water against his naked body, washing away layers of dust, sweat and blood, was pure heaven.  Almost too soon he felt a strong hand on each of his arms, pulling him up to the surface.  And when his friends righted him, he was able to stand up with his head just above the water.  He heard Griff laughing.  “Water’s not even too deep for you midgets.”

Splashing masked Candy’s retort as he pushed Griff under water.

Joe shook his wet hair out of his eyes and realized with his back to the sun, he barely had to squint to protect his eyes despite the fact that Griff’s hat was floating in the water.   A few seconds later, Candy laughed as he squashed the wet hat back on Joe’s head.  “Now why don’t we send our errand boy there back to the horses to pull out some soap and maybe something to scrub with.  It’s gonna take a sight more than a little water to get this grime off our sorry carcasses.”

While Griff splashed his way back to the horses, Candy said quietly to Joe.  “We don’t want to contaminate this water hole with all the soap it’s gonna take to get the three of us clean.  Let’s get you to that big rock over there near where that little creek flows out.  When we need rinse water we’ll just send the kid for a few buckets full.”  Candy automatically took Joe’s arm to help him.

Joe stubbornly shook Candy’s hand off his arm.  “I can make it there on my own.  You don’t have to treat me like a girl you’re escorting to a dance.”   The words had no more left his mouth than they both burst out laughing at the image they provoked.  At the same time, Joe realized how totally exhausted he was from only this brief moment of frolic.  But he was still determined to make it to the designated spot on his own power.

However, three steps through the water toward the grassy bank, Joe stumbled and would have fallen had Candy not caught him.  Candy got serious then.  He faced Joe, a hand clamped around each of Joe’s biceps steadying him and keeping him in place.  “Joe you’ve used Griff to outmaneuver me at every turn.  Against my better judgment we’ve headed for a town with a telegraph long before you’re strong enough to travel.  Before we even left, Griff wore himself out stacking rocks and timbers up in that cave entrance so coyotes wouldn’t eat your pet cat.  And after we’ve been in that damn town maybe half long enough for you to get your strength back, you’re gonna force me to take you along when we go back out after Reinhardt.  So what say Joe?  Could you let me win one?  Let me help you over to the other side of this water hole and help you get cleaned up.  Could you just maybe bend that stubborn Joe Cartwright pride that much?  You want to get your strength back?  Then don’t waste it on things that don’t matter.”

Joe was unable to argue with either Candy’s logic or his sentiment.  He offered no further protest as Candy supported him on the short walk around the waterhole and sat him down on a flat rock.  And he had enough strength left to laugh when Griff handed him a bar of soap and brush.

“Griff, that’s a horse brush.”  Joe pulled some hair out of the brush.  “And there’s still horse hair in it.”

Griff answered with a serious expression on his face.  “Don’t worry Joe.  I’ll clean it before I use it on the horses again.”

* * *

The spyglass never wavered.  It remained trained on the three naked men gamboling in the water.  In particular it focused on Joe, as he struggled to keep from falling over his chains.  A low growl of anger started deep in the man’s throat, steadily working it’s way upward until it emerged as a strangled howl of rage.

“Enjoy it while it lasts, Cartwright.  They may have gotten you out of that cave, but they haven’t saved your miserable life.”  Reinhardt snapped the spyglass shut and considered his next move.

He’d made the trek to the border to mail his letter.  He’d planned to spend a couple of weeks relaxing in Mexico before heading back to area of the cave in time to watch Ben Cartwright claim his son’s wasted body.  But then he’d gotten curious about just how well the younger Cartwright would die.  And so he’d journeyed back from Mexico early, ready to taunt Cartwright with the vision of his father receiving the damning letter, and to tell him a map would shortly follow so his father would be able to claim his son’s body while it was still recognizable.

His return to the cave had left him frothing in impotent rage.  Cartwright was gone, escaped.  But how?  He scoured the scene and saw enough to figure he’d had help.  From who and where, he didn’t know.  But he intended to find out.

Following the tracks of the travois had been easy.  The fools hadn’t even troubled to hide them, thinking their enemy was long gone.  He’d show them.  His fingers itched for a long-range rifle, something he could use to pick them off one by one from a distance.

He’d never carried anything but a shotgun.  His enemies and allies alike thought it was because he liked to look into a cringing victim’s eyes when he blew him apart, and there was some truth to that.  But the rest of the truth was he’d always been a lousy shot.  You couldn’t go wrong with a shotgun blast at close range.  There were always men whose expertise with weapons could be bought when he needed long range killing or a fast gun.  He could have used one of those shootists now to take out the two meddlers.  But he’d have gone close up to get Cartwright anyway.  Give Cartwright time to wish he’d died in that cave instead of taking his two friends with him.

From the looks of the foolish antics in the water, he figured they were relaxing their guard, but his spyglass had shown him the man he recognized as the Cartwright foreman kept his rifle and gunbelt close at hand while he was bathing.  And even after the tall kid had strewn his washed clothes over the bushes to dry, he’d put his gunbelt back on his naked body while he cooked their supper.  The dog was an added complication.  One bark and they’d be on the alert.  He’d have to wait until dark and approach upwind of their campsite.

Reinhardt stood stoically, his mind working.  He’d wasted too much time on the Cartwrights already.  Let Ben Cartwright eat his guts out over his son while he turned his own attention to others who needed to know they should never have crossed Reinhardt the Wolf.  Then when his money ran out, there was that last son to consider.  Like knowing there was money in the bank.

Chapter 30

 Friday - May 21

Griff was half awake when Candy came to get him for his turn on watch.  The chill night air had kept his sleep fitful.  He couldn’t seem to get warm no matter how close to the fire he got.  Candy handed him a cup of the broth they’d made for Joe in the coffee pot.  Joe was the only one who complained about the lack of coffee.  They knew the broth made from the rabbits Candy had scared up would do Joe more good.  They needed the pot for the rice.  Joe swore he’d never eat another grain of rice for the rest of his life, but his stomach was still too weak for more than rice and broth with some bits of meat mixed in.

“How is he?”  Griff asked, taking the tin cup.  They both looked over at Joe outlined by the fire light, sleeping peacefully in Griff’s coat, wrapped in three blankets with a fourth underneath to protect his frail body from the cold ground.

“He woke up a few times.  Got more food into him.  He’s getting stronger, but I sure don’t think he’ll be in shape to go running after Reinhardt any time soon.”

Griff sat forward, wrapping his arms around his knees under the blanket.  “You gonna tell him?”

“Hell no.  Leastways not now.  Maybe I’ll just let his Pa take care of it.”  Candy grinned.  “He has a way of taking charge.”

“Joe seems to be listenin’ to you now though.  Whatever you said to him at the waterhole made him more willin’ to let us fuss over him than I expected.  He took my coat without hardly an argument.  And four of the blankets.“

“But you didn’t tell him we only have six between us counting the one you threw two buckets of water on.   Damn it though, you’re shiverin’ with nothing but that one blanket.”

Griff shook his head solemnly and pointed at his feet.  “Got my boots.”

“Yeah, I know, and your gunbelt.  I think you’re getting entirely too comfortable walking around in your birthday suit.  That was okay in the sun but you’re gonna freeze your ass off now.”  Candy himself was wearing only long johns under his coat.  He walked over to the other side of the fire where the blanket was drying on a rack fashioned mostly of tumbleweeds.  He grabbed it and then spread Griff’s damp clothes and his own shirt and pants to the spot closer to the fire where the blanket had been.

“Here.” He tossed the blanket to Griff.  “It’s dry.  Hour or so, our clothes will be too.

Griff stood up and tossed the blanket back to Candy.  “You need something besides your saddle blanket.  I’ll build up the fire a bit.  Be warm enough til my stuff dries.”

Candy stood there a moment, the blanket in his hand, looking as though figuring whether to take it was a major decision.  But his words said there was something more serious on his mind.  He moved closer and spoke softly.  “Griff, there’s no need for you to go after Reinhardt either.   Getting Joe back safe was more than we set out to do.  At least more than anyone else thought we’d do.  It’s enough.  You should go with him all the way back to the Ponderosa.”  Candy put a hand on Griff’s shoulder.  “There’s a big reward been put up for Reinhardt.  I can get a posse in Banshee Wells on the strength of that.”

Griff shook his head.  “He’s too smart to get caught by some big dust cloud of a posse.   Joe’s pa will be the bait to catch him back at that cave.  He won’t be able to resist seeing him pull Joe’s body out of there.  We’ve got to do it then or everyone on the Ponderosa will be looking over their shoulders waiting for him to strike.  And since my parole keeps me there, that includes me.  I’m lookin’ out for myself as much as anyone.”

Candy gave Griff an assessing look.  “You don’t really think you’ll still be on parole after bringing Joe Cartwright back from the dead?   The Cartwrights never overlook a debt.”

“And you think I’ll take off the minute I get shut of that?”

“Isn’t that what you’ve said all along?”  Candy was challenging him.

Griff thought about it a moment.  He’d owed the Cartwrights too much with no way to get out from under the debt.  They’d never tried to make him feel he owed them any more than a good day’s work for his wages.   Still he knew but for them, he’d have served out the full four years remaining on his two to five year sentence.  If he’d lived that long.  Without a job to go to, the parole board would have made him serve every day.  And although he’d come to trust the Cartwrights wouldn’t send him back for some small mistake, knowing they had the power to do it had weighed heavily on him.  But Candy was right.  He’d wiped the slate clean and Mr. Cartwright probably would think himself in Griff’s debt now.  He’d move heaven and earth to have the parole board release him free and clear.  And then he could do what he’d wanted to do since his first night at the Ponderosa.  He could leave.  He could go anywhere he wanted and no one would have the right to stop him.

And knowing that to be true, made him realize something else.  He didn’t want to go anywhere else.  He reluctantly admitted as much to Candy.  “Well, maybe if I didn’t have to stay, I’d want to.  For a while anyway.   Leastways I don’t want to be chased out by Reinhardt.”

 “You’re a contrary cuss, aren’t you?” Candy’s hand gripped his shoulder again.  “But Griff, I’m serious.  You went through enough with Reinhardt in prison.  I saw how scared you were back there when we stopped that wagon.  I admire you for fighting it when you thought Joe’s life was at stake.  But you shouldn’t have to go through that again now he’s safe.”

Griff glanced over at Joe.  “He went through worse and he’s willing.  I wouldn’t trade my whole year in prison for what Joe went through these last three weeks.  I would have broken being under that man’s power the way Joe was.  But all he can think of is going after him.  Guess I wouldn’t be much of a man if I didn’t back him up.”

Candy sighed.  “You gotta understand the Cartwrights, boy.  Joe didn’t break ‘cause even when he thought he was dying, he had family to protect.”  Candy sat down on Griff’s saddle blanket and Griff sat down next to him.  “I told you about that time I was stuck in that pit with Joe’s father.  A month in the dark.   Not near as bad as what happened to Joe.  We had food, water and each other for company.  Even so, I fell apart.  Not Ben Cartwright though.  I’ve wondered since then what the difference was.  I always fancied myself a pretty strong man.  Now I’m thinking maybe it was as simple as family.  He had his sons to stay strong for.  He knew what it would do to them if he died so he just plain refused to go under.”

With that Candy got up and went over to where he’d laid out his saddle blanket next to his saddle.  He was asleep in moments.

* * *

Griff tossed more brush on the fire.  Holding the blanket close around him he walked around, staying close to the fire for warmth, but keeping his eyes turned away so he wouldn’t lose his night vision in the light of the flames.

In truth, Griff was mostly relying on Charles to be the real lookout.  His senses were sharper than Griff’s at night.  Likely all he’d be doing himself was making sure Joe got something to eat if he woke up.

He was wrong.

Charles came up and nudged him, growling softly.  The hair on the back of Griff’s neck stood up.  Reinhardt was out there.  Griff knew it.  Not just because Charles’s growling told him something was wrong.  Griff could feel him.

Griff tried to shake it off to no avail.  He quickly went over to where Candy was sleeping and woke him, putting his finger tips on Candy’s lips to let him know to be quiet.  Candy came awake quickly and immediately looked over at Joe, his face creased with worry.  Griff shook his head and pointed to Charles whose hackles were raised and then to the direction Charles was looking.

They both saw him at the same time.  He was walking boldly toward the campsite from the West - upwind.  That’s why Charles hadn’t been aware of him sooner.  He was maybe 100 feet away, shotgun in hand, staring intently at Joe who was all too well illuminated by the fire.  Candy and Griff moved at the same time in opposite directions.  Candy grabbed his rifle and got into position to take a shot.  Griff headed for Joe.

That’s what Reinhardt wanted.  Joe.  They’d thwarted his plan to have Joe die slowly, so he was going to see he died fast.  Griff could think of nothing but stopping him.   Not with a gun.  Candy would do that and if Griff tried, Candy could get caught in the crossfire.  All he could do was make sure the Wolf didn’t get a chance to hit his target.

Griff took a dive at Joe’s sleeping form, putting his own body between Joe and that shotgun.  He was airborne when he heard the sounds of a shotgun blast and a rifle.  He felt a sharp pain in his skull, even as he landed, spreading his body to protect Joe, his arms sheltering Joe’s head.  A second blast brought a burning pain to the back of his left leg.

Chapter 31

Friday - May 21

The full-throated roar of a shotgun blast, punctuated with the sound of a rifle firing, ripped Joe from his sleep.  The impact of a heavy body slamming him into the ground drove the breath from his body and left him gasping and confused as a second shotgun blast exploded in the night.  A warm rush of sticky fluid dripped into his eyes and he struggled to lift a shaky hand to wipe it away, staring at his fingers wonderingly when he realized he was covered in blood.

Not mine?  Griff!  Where’s Candy?


Rational thought vanished and instinct took over.  Joe was pressed to the ground, Griff lying on top of him.  He pushed Griff off and quickly scooped up the revolver nestled in the holster at Griff’s otherwise naked hip.  Peering over the protective cover of Griff’s body, he saw Candy lying in a crumpled heap to one side of the campfire.  Struggling to spot their attacker, he saw Reinhardt calmly reloading a shotgun.

The man advanced on Candy, bringing himself into killing range.  Deliberately he raised the weapon to aim at Candy’s unprotected body.  Joe knew Candy would be a dead man within seconds.  At that range the shotgun would tear him to bits.

Fighting the weight of the manacle on his left wrist, Joe positioned himself with his arms propped on Griff’s hip, using his own right forearm to support the gun in his cuffed hand.  He sighted and squeezed off a round.

He cursed as the shot went slightly high and wide.  He’d never fired Griff’s revolver and didn’t know how well it was sighted.  Years of practice kicked in and instinctively Joe compensated for the bad shot.  Firing again, he was sure he’d scored a hit on his target.

A mist of rage descended.  Joe fired another round, and then another.  Driven by the need to kill his tormentor, he shot until the gun was empty.  An irrational fear that the monster wasn’t dead prompted him to eject the shells and pull six more bullets from Griff’s gunbelt.  Fumbling, he inserted them one at a time while never taking his eyes off Reinhardt’s still form lying on the ground.

He’s faking it.  Waiting to get up and kill Candy.  Got to kill him before he kills Candy.

He fired round after round at the prone form.  Reinhardt’s body jerked with every impact, but Joe kept putting bullets into his enemy.  A staccato clicking alerted him that the gun was empty again.  He grabbed Griff and tried to roll him over in a desperate search for more ammunition.  Hampered by the manacle on his wrist and the near-useless state of his right hand, Joe tugged ineffectually at the limp body.

With an inarticulate cry of triumph, he succeeded in getting his hands on more bullets.  He was busy trying to eject the empty cartridges from the gun, when the silent form beneath him stirred.  Joe barely heard the faint moan or noticed the feeble movements of the man beside him.  He was systematically trying to cram a bullet into a chamber.

“Joe?  You okay?”  Griff’s voice was hoarse, as he held a hand to his bloody head.  “Joe?  Where’s Candy.”

The injured man tugged at Joe’s sleeve to get his attention.  “Joe?  Joe!”  Griff’s voice was urgent, but Joe ignored him.

Out of the corner of his eye, Joe saw Griff turn his head to anxiously scan the area, but he steadfastly continued loading the bullets into the gun.

Griff’s voice grew more insistent.  “Let go of the gun, Joe.  He’s dead.”

Joe batted away the intruding hand, as if he were swatting a gnat.  He’d finally managed to load the gun, when a firm hand clamped down on the weapon.  “Joe, put it down.  He’s dead.  We’ve got to go to Candy.  C’mon, Joe.  Listen to me.”

Joe was vaguely aware of Griff’s voice demanding to be heard, but he ignored it.  Reinhardt.  They weren’t safe until Reinhardt was dead.  He had to make sure Reinhardt was dead.  He yanked the gun back, and pulled himself painfully to his feet.  Eyes intent on his target, he shuffled over to the downed man, raising the gun and taking aim again with a single-minded ferocity.

 “Come on, Joe.  Candy needs you.  Put the gun down.  Let’s go see to Candy.  Joe?”

Joe’s mind focused slowly.  He looked blankly at the gun in his hand, and then turned questioning eyes to Griff, who stood painfully favoring one leg.  A scarlet path of blood traced its way down the side of the younger man’s face, splattering his bare shoulders with bright drops.

Joe’s eyes dropped to the body at his feet.  Reinhardt lay silent, his corpse splayed out in an unnatural position.  One bullet had taken him straight through the forehead and his shirt front was wet with blood.  Multiple holes and bright splotches of blood were an indication of how many of Joe’s shots had found their mark.  The Wolf was dead.

Turning back to the man who hovered at his side, Joe whispered, “He’s dead?  Is he dead, Griff?”

* * *

Griff nodded mutely, his eyes riveted to the bullet-ridden body at their feet.  He well understood Joe’s inability to believe his tormentor was really dead.  But they had more pressing matters to tend to now.   “I’d say so.  You got him Joe.  You got him ten times over.  He won’t hurt you anymore.”

Griff could see he hadn’t gotten through.  Joe lapsed into silence, but his eyes tracked back to the still form of his enemy.  He crouched beside the body and placed a tentative hand on the man’s neck, feeling for a pulse.

Griff tugged at him again, trying to get him to stand back up, the need to check on Candy uppermost on his mind.  Joe ignored him, his eyes trained with fierce intensity on Reinhardt’s corpse.  Giving up, Griff hobbled painfully over to where Candy lay.  He felt a rush of relief when he saw a pair of alert eyes looking up at him, the strong face lined with a mixture of pain and fear.

“Hey, Griff, you look like Hell, boy,” Candy managed to force out between clenched teeth.  He tried to look past the other man, fear gaining the upper hand on his face.  “Joe?”

From behind Griff, a shaky voice responded.  “I’m okay, Candy.”  Hearing Candy’s voice had apparently snapped Joe out of his trance.  Griff turned to see Joe pulling his aching body over to his fallen friend.  “How are you?”

Candy tried to laugh, and then gritted his teeth in pain.  “I’ve been better.  Glad my shirt wasn’t dry.  Would’ve ruined it for sure.”

Then he said more seriously.  “We’re a pathetic bunch, aren’t we?  Don’t think we’re gonna make it to that telegraph in time, Joe.  Sorry.”

Griff watched as Joe’s face constricted at the reminder of the grief awaiting his father if they didn’t send a wire before he opened and read that damned letter.  To his credit, Joe knew where his priorities lay.  He sighed.  “Not much we can do about it.  None of us is in any shape to go anywhere today.  ”We have more important things to worry about now -- getting us all home in one piece.”

Joe knelt beside Candy, “Let’s take a look at you, old friend.”  Griff saw Candy wince as Joe automatically let an exploratory hand trail over Candy’s shoulder, chest and ribcage, raking one of the wounds with the heavy cuff on his wrist.  Joe looked stricken at having caused his friend more pain.  He looked up at Griff.  “You’d better do this.”

Griff knelt down, wiping the blood away from his eyes as he did.  That attracted the attention of both the other men.   “Damn it Griff, how bad are you hurt?  Joe, take care of him first.”

Griff brushed off their concern.  “No big thing Candy.  I’ll be okay. Must have hit my head on that damn boulder Joe was sleeping next to.  You know how head wounds bleed.”

At Candy’s quizzical look, Joe answered, “That fool kid put himself between me and a shotgun blast.  Must have hit his head jumping all over me.  Then he was kind enough not to move while I took his gun, used his bare body as a bunker and emptied the gun into Reinhardt.  Damn fool thing to do.”

Griff shrugged and answered illogically, “Well, he wasn’t shooting at me.”

Joe laughed briefly, then picked up Griff’s revolver which he’d put down next to Candy.  He handed it over to Griff, butt first.  You’d better keep this now.   When we get back, I’ll make sure you get a better one.  This one shoots a little high and to the left.  Now let’s get Candy closer to the fire.”

Chapter 32

Friday - May 22

The job of removing the heavy shotgun pellets from Candy’s body fell to Griff by default.   Joe could barely feed himself much less take on the delicate task.  Griff’s head ached from his dive into the boulder and he walked stiffly as the result of the pellets that had found their way into his hip.  But his injuries were minor.  It could have been so much worse for all of them.

Using the light of both lanterns, he thought he’d managed to get everything out. Candy had been stoic about the pain.  The fact that they were all alive and Reinhardt dead seemed to carry him through in something close to good spirits.

Finally Candy was bandaged and sleeping, wrapped in two blankets by the fire with Joe keeping watch.  Griff brought Joe a heaping cup of rice moistened with broth.  Joe looked at it with resignation but didn’t protest.   With Candy down, it was more important than ever that Joe regain his strength.  He managed to cradle the cup between his chest and his right forearm so he could feed himself with no help.

Griff had gotten himself dressed - mostly.   His pants weren’t yet dry but his shirt and long Johns were, so he’d put them on.  It was too cold to be walking around bare-assed just to make Joe feel like he wasn’t out of place.

Joe seemed to be more amused than envious.  “About time you got some clothes on.  If you take it in your head to jump on me again, I’d just as soon you weren’t buck naked.”

“Yeah, and if you should need to use me to rest on while you shoot at people, I wouldn’t mind a little something between me and the cold hard ground – or between me and a revolver that shoots high and wide.”  Griff smiled briefly at what would have been an amusing picture had there been a little less lead and blood flying around.  Then he turned to a more serious subject. “Joe, I’m going to go out and do something with that body.  Call out if you need anything.”

Joe scowled.  “You’re in no shape to bury him.  Let the coyotes and the buzzards have at him.”

Griff shared the sentiment but he didn’t want to tell Joe he hoped there was a key to the shackles in one of Reinhardt’s pockets.  “I’m just going to drag him away from camp.  Don’t want the coyotes coming close enough to get Charles.”

Hearing his name, the little dog lifted his head from where it had been resting on Candy’s knee.  Charles had apparently decided Candy was in worse shape than Joe and had shifted his vigilance accordingly.

Griff grinned at him.  “Hey pal, I got shot too.  How bad do I have to be hurt to get my dog back?”

Charles’ tail thumped on the dusty ground, but he didn’t get up.  “Stay, Charles,” Griff ordered unnecessarily, and picked up a lantern as walked away from the fire to the body of the Wolf.

For a long moment he looked into the dead eyes of their enemy.   He needed this picture to stick in his mind, replacing the stare of the cold, feral eyes that had once terrified an eighteen-year old boy with no family or friends to protect him.  The bullet hole in his forehead didn’t repulse Griff in the slightest.

Finally he knelt beside the body, ignoring the pain that shot up his leg as he did so.  He carefully went through the man’s pockets and found nothing but some shotgun shells and matches.  Griff automatically started to put both in his own pockets but realized he didn’t have any.

He removed the man’s coat and vest, hoping for a hidden pocket.  Nothing.  He pulled off the man’s boots and again found nothing.  He almost tossed them away.  He certainly wasn’t going make it harder for the buzzards to tear this man apart by replacing them.  Then he thought of Joe’s bare and damaged feet.  These boots would be too big, but if he padded them with strips of cloth ripped from the jacket and vest . . .

He put the boots aside, next to the shotgun, and draped the jacket and vest over them.  Then out of nothing better than morbid curiosity, he stretched out the body and counted the bullet holes, hoping Reinhardt had been alive to feel most of them.   Twelve.  Damn -- bad light, cuffed hand, rushed firing -- Joe had still made all his shots.

After Griff figured he’d convinced himself for all time that Reinhardt was dead, he grabbed the body by the ankles.  Dragging it behind a pile of rocks, he unceremoniously wedged it between a couple of boulders.  He was about to head back to the warmth of the campfire when he realized Reinhardt must have a horse out there someplace.  Not too close.  He wouldn’t have risked his horse responding to the smell of their horses and giving away his approach.

Griff gave a loud whistle.  He wasn’t going to traipse all over this God forsaken place looking for that horse when Charles could find him in no time.  He whistled again and grinned as Charles finally came running.  Apparently he still had some loyalty to the last man standing.

* * *

Joe had finished the cup of rice and was wishing he had the energy to get up for more when Griff came back.  He heard him tie another horse up with their string.  Reinhardt’s he figured.  A few minutes later Griff came into camp with a grin on his face.  Before Joe could ask what the hell he had to grin about, Griff dangled a ring of keys in front of him   “Had it in the saddlebags. With another set of shackles.”

Joe’s heart gave a lurch.  He held his breath as Griff selected the most likely keys and started trying them on the shackles around his ankles.   With the third try the cuff opened.  In a moment Joe’s feet were free for the first time in three weeks.  It took more tries to free him of his wrist cuff but soon it had dropped into the dust along side its mates.  Joe waved his arm experimentally, while flexing his bare feet.  He didn’t say anything, but his face spoke for him.  He’d been burdened with the weight of the shackles for weeks; now he was free.  Truly free.  He felt his spirits soar, and he couldn’t stop the delighted grin from spreading ear to ear.  Nor did he want to.

He looked at Griff.  “Another suspicion you wouldn’t share?  You went out there looking for these didn’t you?”  Joe shook his head.    “You know Griff, sometimes you might trust someone with your thoughts.  Give a guy a little something hopeful to think about while wondering whether you were getting lost out there.”

“But what if they hadn’t been there?  What if I’d gotten your hopes up for nothing?”

“Then I’d have had a nice half hour of wishful thinking.”

Griff paused and gave Joe an apologetic look.  “That’s what you wished I’d done for your father isn’t it?  No matter how small the hope.   No matter the lack of any proof.  I should have told him what I suspected.”

Joe considered carefully.  That was what he’d been thinking, but he wondered.  If it had been Jamie and he’d had as little to go on as Griff had, would he have dared raise his father’s hopes.  And even if he might have made a different decision, did he want to saddle Griff with guilt after all he’d done?  He’d have died in that cave but for Griff’s hunch.

“You know Griff, it’s easy to say that now -- you found me alive.  But you couldn’t guess the outcome when you left.  You did what seemed right at the time.  And I guess it would have been the right thing if I’d died in that cave.  Or even if it had been me in that fire.  Having me die twice was Reinhardt’s scheme.  Can’t blame you for not wanting to risk causing that kind of pain.”

Joe was glad to see Griff look relieved.  He went over and dished Joe up another cup of rice and poured the last of the broth over it.  He shook the coffee pot and said to Joe as he handed him the cup of rice.  “What say I wash this out and make us some coffee?”

When Griff came back from the water hole, he set the pot on the fire.  “By the way Joe, didn’t look like my revolver sights as high and wide as you thought.  The bastard had twelve bullets in him.”

Joe knew that couldn’t be right.  That first shot had gone nowhere useful…”That’s not possible.  You must have been counting an in-and-out as two shots.”

Griff was about to protest, when Joe heard a welcome voice interrupt in mock indignation.  “You two don’t give me much credit.  I did get a shot off you know.”

Candy.  Candy was awake and feeling well enough to joke.

Griff grinned.  “Well, Joe looks like you’re gonna have to share that reward with Candy.”

Joe had no idea what Griff meant until he remembered the reward poster.  He grinned back and answered lightly.  “If you hadn’t thrown yourself between me and that shotgun blast, I might not have gotten any shots off.  I’d say your foolishness needs to be rewarded.  I’ll see that you and Candy split the reward.”  And then he said softly – feeling it needed to be said at least once.  “That took a lot of courage.  It was a fool thing like I said.  But brave.  You could have been killed.  I won’t forget.”

Griff ducked his head, refusing to look Joe in the eyes.  He picked up a canteen and went over to sit beside Candy.  He lifted his friend’s head and let him take a good long drink of cool water.  Then he finally looked at Joe.  “Don’t give me credit for courage.  Just before he showed up Candy was telling me how saving you was sure to get me off parole.  That’s all I was doing.  Protecting myself.”

“Sure,” Joe responded with a touch of sarcasm.  “We could’ve put that on your gravestone, ‘He got himself full of lead and off parole.’  Lot of good it would have done you.  You’re not going to convince me you risked your life to get off parole.”

Griff still looked uncomfortable.  “Don’t be thinking you owe me anything.   I didn’t do it for you.  After all we went through to find you.  I couldn’t let him win.”  Griff looked up and smiled just a little.  “And besides, I couldn’t see Candy losing his best friend twice in one month.  I watched him find your body once.  That was enough.”

Joe glanced at Candy who looked to be asleep again.  “I’d say after all this you could have taken my place easily enough.”

Candy wasn’t asleep -- not quite.  “Are you two going to jaw all night about which one of you I like better?  An injured man needs his sleep you know.   Lets just say I wouldn’t have spent three weeks sleeping in the saddle, riding to hell and gone for anyone but my best friend.  Griff doesn’t need me for that.  He needs a big brother to keep him from doing foolish things like jumping in front of shotguns.”  Then he added with a lightness that masked something more serious below the surface   “And maybe I need a kid brother to look out for.”  Candy pulled the blankets tighter around himself.  “You two get some sleep.  Now that Joe’s got those shackles off, I’m betting we’re not going to keep him off a horse.  We’ll be out of here before I can get a decent breakfast.   You let me get some sleep and just maybe I’ll able to sit a horse instead of bouncing around in that damn travois.”

Candy did go back to sleep then.  Griff built up the fire, then spread out his own blanket and dropped off almost immediately.  Joe pulled his blankets close around him and sat for a while looking into the fire.  Charles came over to keep him company.  As Joe scratched behind the little dog’s ears, he thought about the urgency of getting to a town with a telegraph.  None of them would be in shape to ride a full day or even most of one for a while.  They had to get those shotgun pellets out of Griff’s leg before it got infected.  Maybe he could manage it in the morning now the cuff was gone.  But for all Candy’s bravado, no one would be ready to ride tomorrow or even the next day.

His thoughts drifted to home.  Joe had always felt the strong tug of blood ties.  While the three brothers had argued and sometimes fought, they’d remained loyal to each other.  You owed your first allegiance to those related to you by birth and you could expect the same in return.

But it had taken Reinhardt’s final threat against Jamie to waken Joe’s anger to the point where he’d become desperate to free himself.  And he had no blood ties to Jamie.  But he had ties of another kind.  Legal ties, ties of affection and love.  Was that what made the difference?

And then there was Jared, who’d helped Joe through that horrible time years earlier and had earned the place of little brother in his heart in the process.  What if Reinhardt had learned of Jared’s existence and turned on him?  Wouldn’t he have reacted in exactly the same way, with rage and the desperate desire to escape?  What did that say about family and blood ties?

He looked over at the two men sleeping by the fire.  Candy lay on his back, his face still showing evidence the pain remained, even during sleep.  Griff lay on the opposite side of the fire, curled on his side to avoid putting weight on his wounded hip.  Joe smiled softly when he noticed each man’s hand rested close to his gun, still ready to take on all comers if a threat should arise in the night.  His bodyguards.  His rescuers.  Yet despite all the abuse his body had taken, when the need had arisen he’d been able to protect them.  He suspected something had been forged among them all on this journey that would remain long after they went back to routine ranch work.

It wasn’t blood that mattered at all.  It was loyalty, trust, affection and love.  That was what was important in the long run.  Families were born and families were made.  But they were families just the same.

He scratched the dog’s ears again, settling back into a more comfortable position.   Charles looked at Joe, then out beyond the fire.  Joe followed his gaze.  Nothing there of course.  He sighed and spoke to the dog – hell why not, he’d spent almost a week talking to a cat.  “You’re right Charles.  He’s gone.  Jamie and Pa aren’t in danger.  We’ve got a long, hard road ahead of us.  These two men have pushed themselves too much for me to push them now.   We’ll get there when we get there.   It’ll have to be enough.”

He gazed up at the stars, filled with some unnamed emotion at being able to see them again.  He had his family waiting for him at home, and his family with him at his back.   And someday, not someday soon, but someday, he had family waiting for him beyond those stars.

The End

Well, the original end.  But those taskmistresses in our writing group demanded to know what was going on back at the ranch, so Karen obliged with the Epilogue below.


Thursday - May 27

The whirlwind of activity was over.  Ben was gone for no one knew how long.  Jamie sat limply in front of the fireplace in the Ponderosa great room, his friend Jared at his side.  Both boys were weak with exhaustion and grief.  Still in the process of grieving for the man who had been brother to both, they were now trying to cope with the idea that he’d been alive and suffering all the time.  And now he was almost certainly dead again.  It was too much.

“Boys?”  The deep voice sounded loud in the quiet room.  “Ah think Hop Sing done cooked up somethin’ special fer supper.  I think you should eat somethin’.”

Jamie glanced up and smiled a little. “I’m not hungry, but thanks anyway, Hiram.”  He nudged his friend.  “Jared, you go ahead.”

The other boy turned haunted eyes toward the redhead.  “I don’t think I can eat anything.  I just keep thinkin’ about Joe.”  The eyes threatened to shed the tears that were brimming when a large hand enfolded the boy’s shoulder.  Its' mate found its way to Jamie’s shoulder and Hiram stood quietly, struggling to make sense of the horrifying revelations of the previous day.

In the weeks following Joe’s death, the only thing that held Ben Cartwright together was the presence of his son, Jamie.  After Candy and Griff departed to track down the killer, Ben sought out his son, and the two shared some quiet moments together, forging new and stronger bonds in their mutual grief.  Jared, who spent most of his free time working around the ranch, had devoted as much time as he could with his friend.  Their mutual love for Joe gave way to shared grief.

Then had come the letter.  The simple message from Joe, coupled with Reinhardt’s vindictive words had galvanized the patriarch of the Ponderosa.

He’d been almost giddy in his joy at seeing the familiar backward slanting handwriting of his missing son, and almost as quickly had begun to burn in silent rage at the thought of what that son had been enduring for weeks.

He’d stormed through the household like the wrath of God, Jared and Jamie ducking out of his path as he walked by.  He didn’t see them; he was so consumed with the inner fire of anger.  They’d watched with stricken eyes as he’d tossed things into saddlebags and ordered his horse saddled.  He’d left the house without a word of farewell, leaving behind two scared boys.  Hiram had stepped in then, sending Jamie out to the barn to reason with him.

Jamie had entered the barn to find Ben standing in grief-stricken silence, his eyes anguished and afraid.  He’d raised his hands helplessly at Jamie’s call.

“I don’t know where to go.  He could be anywhere between here and Mexico.  I won’t get to him in time.”  The words were a bare whisper, and Jamie had enfolded the man in his strong young arms.

The two had shared a quiet moment of grief, mingled with the fearsome rage they both felt.  And then they’d talked quietly, mapping out a plan of action.  Jamie reminded his father that Griff and Candy were on the trail of the killer, and with any luck they would be able to find Reinhardt and make him lead them back to Joe.  With that hope tucked away in his heart, Ben calmed more and let rational thought take the place of impulsive angry reaction.

Ben sent wires to everyplace he could think of in Nevada, Arizona and Mexico.  He offered a reward of 50,000 dollars for the safe return of his son, 1000 dollars for the retrieval of his body.

And then calmer, burdened with the knowledge that he was looking for a son who was most likely already dead, he’d left.  The towering rage had burned out but the inner fire was still there.  If he didn’t come back with Joe’s body, he was determined not to return until he had Reinhardt’s head.

Now there were two young men left at the Ponderosa, too young for the emotional burden that had been thrust upon them.  Hiram stood behind them, grieving for the young man who’d found his way into all their hearts so many years ago.

Ben had been gone for only a few hours when a loud knocking startled them all, and Jamie jumped up to answer the door.  He was almost barreled over by Clem who looked around wildly.  “Where’s Ben?  I’ve got a telegram for him.”

“He’s gone, Clem.  He went to look for Joe,” Jamie said in confusion.  “Is it. . . has someone found . . .”  he swallowed.  “Did someone find Joe’s body?”

Clem looked at him, really seeing him for the first time since entering the room.  A broad smile broke out on his kind face.  “Son, Joe’s alive.  The telegram’s from him.  He’s with Griff and Candy.  He sent this from a little place on the Arizona border called Banshee Wells.  Gives the route they plan to take back when they’re strong enough to travel.  So you can meet him.  Candy got shot but he’ll be okay.   Reinhardt’s dead, and Joe’s alive.  I’ve got to find your Pa and let him know.”

Clem was almost knocked off his feet by the sudden explosion of noise in the room.  Jared and Jamie danced around whooping like banshees, as though inspired by the name of the town where Joe was safe with his friends, while Hiram stood quietly, a soft smile of joy on his face.  Almost as one, the boys turned to the older man.

“Pa, can we go find Mr. Cartwright?   Me’n Jamie?  We know which way he was gonna go.”  Jared’s eyes were pleading, and Jamie stood waiting hopefully for the man’s answer.

Hiram smiled. “Ah’m sure that’d be jes’ fine, son.  Y’all git packed up ‘n go.”

Jamie didn’t need a second urging.  He raced from the room to pack for the trip, calling back over his shoulder as he took the stairs two at a time, “Maybe Pa will let us go with him to meet up with Joe.    What d’you think, Jared.  You up for a trip to Arizona?”

Jared’s answer was quick and enthusiastic, and it wasn’t more than a quarter of an hour before the boys were in the barn, saddling up for the ride.  Jamie had made a quick side trip through the door of Joe’s room.  His father had carefully shut the door, leaving everything just as Joe had left it.  Now, in his wild haste, Jamie pulled out drawers and flung clothes for Joe into a saddlebag.

In the barn, Jamie headed for his own horse without a second thought, but Jared stood hesitating before one of the stalls.

“C’mon, Jared, hurry,” Jamie urged.  “We’ve got to catch Pa before he gets too far ahead of us.”

Jared’s eyes were wide.  “I want to take him, Jamie.  Joe’ll want ta see him, don’t ya think?”  He pointed to the black and white pinto who stood quietly munching in the stall.

Jamie’s grin went from ear to ear.  “That’s a fine idea. Joe’ll be really happy you thought of it. Now let’s go.”

* * *

The fierce anger had burned to a quiet rage.  Ben Cartwright rode steadily onward, his face grim, his eyes shadowed with suppressed grief.  He’d been so blind, such a fool.  He berated himself over and over again.  How could he have given up on his son so easily?  If he’d only questioned the events, Joe might be home right now.

He’d been riding at a pace designed to get the most from his horse, not a killing gallop, but not a slow plodding either.  He’d only been on the road for half a day when the pounding of galloping hooves sounded loud behind him.  He swung around in the saddle and spied a familiar flashy, black and white horse racing toward him, accompanied by Jamie’s bay.

The sight of Joe’s horse rekindled the smoldering anger.  He pulled up Buck and sat waiting for the two to catch him, his eyes snapping with rage.  They had hardly gotten within earshot when he let them have it.

“How dare you ride Joe’s horse?  What are you two doing out here all alone?  I told you to stay home where it’s safe.  There’s a killer out there somewhere and he could be after you next, Jamie.”  The words streamed out of him in a torrent, until he realized that the boys were just grinning at him silently, making no attempt to deflect his anger, or even answer his charges.

The torrent of words sputtered to a stop, and Ben drew his heavy eyebrows together in a fierce frown.  “Don’t just sit there grinning at me, Jamie.  I want an answer,” he demanded.

Jamie’s smile was wide, his eyes sparkling with happiness.  “We brought Cochise along because we figured that Joe will want to see him when we meet up with him,” he answered simply.

Ben’s heart leapt to his throat and he once again took in the wide smiles of the two boys, the same boys he’d left sitting in a dejected heap only hours before.  “Joe?” he whispered.  “Jamie?  What about Joe?”

Jamie held out a folded telegram, and Ben snatched it eagerly from his grasp.  He read the words on the page, and the boys watched the years fall from the man.  “He’s alive?”

Jamie nodded quietly, but his eyes were soft with unshed tears.  Ben whooped loudly, spooking the horses, and tossed his hat in the air.  He leaned from his saddle and swept Jamie into his arms, almost squeezing the breath from the boy’s body.  “He’s alive.  Jamie, he’s alive!”

Again, Jamie nodded, exchanging a foolish grin with Jared, who’d been watching the scene with affectionate interest.  “Pa?” he said, struggling to capture Ben’s attention.  “Don’t you think we should head for Banshee Wells?  I think there’s someone there waiting for us.”

The smile on Ben Cartwright’s face out shone the sun; the relief on his face was a joy to behold.  “We?” he asked in mock indignation.  “Who said anything about US traipsing down to the bottom of Nevada?”

Jared and Jamie giggled.  “We did.”

Ben gave them another brilliant smile.  “Well, what are we waiting for?  Let’s go bring your brother home.”

The End

Or so we thought.  But once again those sentimentalists in our writing group demanded more -- a Pa/Joe reunion.  We said, if you want one, you write it.  So Helen Adams and The Tahoe Ladies obliged.  Hereafter follows two takes on a proper ending to our story.  They are not necessarily consistent with each other.

Another Epilogue to
The Murder of Joe Cartwright
 by Helen Adams

Sitting in a wooden chair on the board sidewalk in front of Banshee Wells’ only hotel, Joe rocked a bit as he tipped the seat back on its two rear legs and propped his feet up on the edge of a water trough. Lowering the brim of his new hat down over his eyes to block the worst of the bright afternoon sunshine, he rubbed his right wrist. The hand was splinted and heavily bandaged to allow the several small fractures in it to heal. Joe had been promised that he would regain full dexterity if he obeyed orders and didn't try using that hand for anything until given official permission by a doctor. Considering how badly it still throbbed most of the time that would be easy enough, but leaving his bandage-covered wrists alone was proving to be a lot more difficult. They itched like the dickens, as did his ankles and the various scabbed over sores and abrasions peppering his body. Only this morning, Candy had caught him leaning against a post, rubbing his back and shoulders against the knobby piece of lumber like a bear in the woods. He wondered just how long he would have to endure his friend's teasing over that one. Then he grinned. Not long. Once Candy and Griff started feeling more healed than hurt by their own wounds, it would be time to turn the tables.

A week's worth of nothing to do but rest had done all three men a world of good, but with every passing hour Joe could feel himself growing more restless. He was feeling, while not quite normal, at least human. He was eating regular food again, though he still felt as if he'd never get enough of it, and new clothes, a visit to the local barber, and a few nights of solid sleep
in a real bed had done wonders for both his appearance and his disposition. If it weren't for the still-healing wounds and the nightmares, he might
almost have believed the whole ordeal had never happened.

Despite the warmth of the sun, Joe shivered suddenly.  The nightmares. The first couple of nights, his sleep had been too deep for dreams of any kind as his exhausted body concentrated on replenishing itself, but by the third he was reliving all the worst moments of his three weeks of captivity. Sometimes he would see Walt being tortured and burned to death while the
Wolf's cold laughter rang through the air. Sometimes it was the cave, where he would find himself chained to the wall again and screaming his lungs out to
Candy and Griff, who stood just beyond the rock wall unable to hear him. A couple of times, he had been back inside the false bottom of the wagon, pounding the surface of what had truly become his coffin as it was lowered into a dark hole in the ground and buried, and a couple of other times Reinhardt's dog had clawed its way into his wooden holding cell and torn him to pieces. The worst nightmares of all, though, had been the ones where he had already died. In those dreams, he was forced to stand by and watch, unseen and unheard, while Jamie was murdered by the Wolf and his father slowly died of a broken heart.

The chair legs gave a loud thump as Joe abruptly stood up and began to pace. Every time he allowed himself to remember the hollow look of pain his father had worn in those dreams, it was all he could do not to grab the nearest horse and ride as hard as he could for the Ponderosa. A deep fear that the telegram had been too late, that Ben had ridden out before it arrived and still did not know that his son was alive and safe, gnawed at Joe.

"Hey, buddy, you're going to wear those new boots right out if you keep going like that."

Brooding thoughts interrupted, Joe looked up to find Candy leaning against the wall behind him, a grin on his face. "How long you been there?"

Candy shrugged and helped himself to the chair his friend had vacated, tipping it back just as Joe had done. "Not long. I said hello when I came out but you didn't hear me. Feeling a little anxious?"

There was little point in denying it. While he knew he had managed not to yell out during most of his nightmares, Joe had not been as successful last night. He had made enough noise to bring Griff and Candy both charging in to rescue him with guns drawn, a fact he had been most embarrassed about when he'd woken up enough to realize it. Trying to shrug off the worry he
had caused, he answered, "Just wondering when Pa's going to arrive."

A grunt indicated Candy's understanding. Their original plan to meet Ben on the trail home had been abandoned when Griff's injury had become mildly
infected. Knowing how much Joe needed to see his father, Griff had tried to persuade his companions that he was well enough to ride, and when that hadn't worked, to go ahead without him. They had ignored both suggestions, unwilling to ride out until they could all go together.

"Griff's feeling a lot better today," Candy offered. "If your Pa doesn't show up today then I think we'll be okay to ride out and meet him come morning. After all I'm sure he's almost-"

The words were swallowed up by a huge grin as the Ponderosa foreman pointed his hand down toward the end of the street. "Well, speak of the devil!"

Joe's eyes followed the gesture and he reached out to clutch a post next to him, his legs suddenly feeling as if they might buckle as a wash of pure emotion seized him. A big buckskin horse had just come into view, followed closely by a bay and Joe's own flashy black and white pinto. "Pa," he croaked out, then completely defied his weakened physical condition by taking off down the street at a dead run. "Pa!"

Ben Cartwright had been pushing himself and the two boys forward at a ground-eating pace since first light, unable to stop himself when he was so close to the town where his son's telegram had originated. When there had been no sign of Joe or the others on the trail, he had begun to worry that there had been some detail that the short message had left out. It was so
like Joe to say everything was fine no matter what kind of condition he was in. He could be lying on his deathbed and he would still say that! Ben had tried to keep his concerns from his two young companions, but they had sensed it anyway and had grown steadily more silent as the miles passed. Not knowing what kind of shape they might find Joe in by the time they arrived, the imaginations of all three had painted image upon grisly image in an effort to prepare themselves for the worst.

"Pa! Jared! Jamie!"

The shouting caused all three riders to pull up short, staring in utter disbelief as Joe, the man they all loved and had never thought to see alive again, much less upright and obviously very mobile, came sprinting toward them. The two boys were off their horses in a heartbeat, charging down the street to meet him halfway with whoops of joy and a tangle of outstretched arms that nearly spun Joe right off his feet as they simultaneously caught him up in an embrace.

"You're alive," sniffled Jared, backing off a pace to swipe at his nose and the tears sliding down his cheeks with the back of one hand. "I jes' can't
believe it. I'as afraid to believe it until now."

"I know," Joe agreed. "There’s a part of me that’s still afraid I might be dreaming."

Eyes alight with sudden excitement; Jared scampered back toward the horses,announcing, "I know how to prove you ain’t! I brung you somethin'." He grabbed the reins of Joe’s beloved pinto and brought him forward. "Thought you might like to ride him home."

Touched by the gesture, Joe stroked a hand over the strong smooth neck of his horse. "Thank you, Jared. It wouldn’t have been a real family reunion without him." He whispered a few words into Cochise's pointed ear and the animal responded with all the enthusiasm anyone could have hoped for, nibbling and blowing at Joe’s shirt collar and hair with enough force to knock
his new hat right into the dirt, making him laugh with delight.

Jared’s grin was as bright as a summer sunrise as he watched, and he laughed giddily when Joe reached out to hug him tightly again before turning to Jamie.

"Joe, I… Oh, Joe!" Jamie could manage nothing more, every word he had been planning to say at that moment disappearing as tears began flooding down his freckled face. Joe pulled him close, using his unfettered hand
to stroke the young man's bright hair, and Jamie clung tight, just repeating his brother’s name over and over again.

"It's okay, Jamie," Joe whispered, his throat so tight he could barely get the words out. "I'm all right. We're both all right, you and me. Reinhardt lost. We're alive, and he's dead, and it's all over now. It's over."

Suddenly, speaking those words while held in the arms of a brother whom he had never thought to see again released the tension Joe had held inside for so long.

He had not shed a single tear in all the time he had been held captive, relying first on pride, then hatred of his captor, love of his family, and finally the loyalty of his friends to keep him going. As he waited through the endless days for this moment, tears had seemed so pointless, a mark of the despair he refused to give in to, and of the weakness he had proved to the Wolf that he did not possess. Now he was as helpless to stop the sobs that welled up in his chest as he had been to stop the events that caused them. There were no reserves of emotional strength left inside of him as he let go of Jamie and stumbled forward a step, barely able to even see his father
through his tears, but falling straight into his waiting arms with the instinct of a child's need for the comfort of a parent.

Several spectators had stopped to watch the unusual and somewhat shocking display happening in the middle of the street, but Ben never saw them. The last son of his body, the baby he had watched grow into a boy and then a man to be proud of, the son he had thought lost to a murderer's rage, had been returned to him. It was a miracle far too great to allow him any other thought. As he held Joe's heaving body to his chest, Ben could literally feel his broken heart healing inside of him, and was as unable to stop his tears as Joe had been.

At long last, Joe pulled back to look into his father's eyes, laughing slightly through the tears that continued to dribble down his cheeks. Reaching his hands up to dash the moisture away, he saw Ben's sharp eyes focus on the heavily bandaged right hand. "It's okay, Pa. I'm fine."

The words triggered a different kind of hysteria. Ben began to chuckle slowly, then faster, and at last he threw his head back and released his own tension in great bellowing guffaws that soon spread to everyone in the street and on the sidewalk. "Of course you are, Joseph. Of course you are. Let's go inside and you can tell us the whole story, then I'll decide just how
'fine' you are."

Sliding his arm around his father's back, Joe looked at the two boys hovering by his elbow, both wearing smiles so wide that their faces looked in danger of freezing that way. "I'll tell you all over lunch at the hotel," he offered. "I suddenly feel like I could eat everything on the menu in one sitting."

Ben had noticed how fragile his son's body had felt in his arms and fully agreed that a good meal was in order. Knowing he would likely get a slightly watered down version of the facts if Joe were to tell the story on his own, he said, "I think that's an excellent idea, and I also think it would be best if Candy and Griff came along with us."

For the first time, Joe noticed that his two friends were standing up on the sidewalk, arms crossed over their chests as they leaned on either side of a pole grinning like a couple of fools as the watched the reunion. In a serious tone, he told his father, "You're right, Pa. I wouldn't be standing here now if
it weren't for them and I want you to know what they went through for me."

Feeling a bit choked up again, Ben simply nodded.

Signaling that he would be a moment, Joe approached his companions and stepped up onto the sidewalk. "Enjoy the show?" he asked casually.

"Sure," Candy told him. "Brought a tear to my eye." He made a show of sniffling and knuckling at the corner of his eye, while Griff lifted a handkerchief to his nose and gave a honk that would have put a foghorn to

Feeling somewhat embarrassed by his public display now that it was over; Joe punched the laughing Griff lightly in the arm to cover it up. Taking note of the slightly reddened condition of his friends' twinkling eyes, he smiled, realizing that perhaps Candy hadn't entirely been joking. No other words seemed necessary beyond, "Thanks."

Knowing how much was included in that simple statement, the two men shook hands with Joe, then Candy winked at Griff and said, "Heard your Pa inviting us to lunch, Joe. Does this mean he's about to give us a reward for rescuing your sorry butt?"

Raising a sardonic eyebrow, Joe shot back, "Why should he? It was Charles that found me. I think he should get the reward."

"Well, Charles is my dog, so I should get half," Griff interjected. "Right?"

"You got it, a bone for each of you," Joe agreed.

Continuing their playful bickering, Joe, Candy and Griff moved to join Joe's waiting family, where the two younger boys fell right into the fun. Watching  them all, Ben breathed a thankful sigh. The nightmare was over at last.

The Wherefore and The Why
Another Epilogue to
The Murder of Joe Cartwright
By The Tahoe Ladies

"Well, gentlemen, we have a problem," Candy announced as he walked through the hotel room door. "As of right now, we are officially broke."

Griff looked up from where he was reclining on the settee, every ounce of  flagging energy given over to meeting his friend's words. Over the last two days he had begged, cajoled, pleaded and coaxed Candy and Joe into not pelting hell bent for leather back to the Ponderosa. It seemed to have been a useless exercise. He couldn't fathom the why of it since they had wired Ben Cartwright and told him that they had found Joe alive and while Joe wasn't in the best of conditions, Griff couldn't understand why it was so all-fired important to meet him more than half way. Now Candy had given them the perfect excuse to slow down.

"Can't be," Joe muttered, never opening his eyes and never moving a muscle that wasn't necessary as his too lean form lay back on the bed. "I'll go wire the bank in Virginia City and have them send us a letter of credit. We take it to the bank here and get us some. Then we are back on the road home. Tomorrow morning at the latest."

"There’s only one problem with that," Griff pointed out. "You're dead." He felt rather than saw a pair of green eyes drill into him, making the accusation that he wasn't funny. "At least to the bank in Virginia City, you are."
"He's right, Joe. Besides, there is no bank in this town. Wait, I know. There was that notice in the papers that your father put out. We take you over to the sheriff and get the reward for killing Reinhardt and your safe return!" Candy's fingers snapped and his smile broadened at his own idea.

"And they throw our sorry asses in jail for having something to do with his disappearance in the first place!" Griff moaned, shoving his shoulders into the horsehair covering of the settee. "No thanks!"

"Not if Joe speaks up for us. Come on, Joe what do you say?" And to further his chance of convincing Joe, Candy slapped playfully at the blanket-covered foot. Too late, he remembered the condition that particular foot was in.

Candy watched as those same steady green eyes that had nailed young Griff came to land on him. Joe blinked once then took a deep breath, slowly letting it go. He shoved himself onto one elbow then levered himself to sit up in bed. With a heavily bandaged hand, he shoved his hair out of his face and scowled at the other two occupants of the room.

"Just tell me again how the two of you managed to out think someone as smart as Reinhardt, because for the life of me, I can't see the same intelligence at work here!"

Both Candy and Griff bristled but Joe went on.

"Maybe it has something to do with the heat. Or maybe it's your head wound Griff. Candy, you feeling okay? A little woozy maybe? No, what we have to do is simple. We sell the horses. Granted they ain't good Ponderosa stock but we should get enough out of them to keep us fed and housed for a few days."

"But I thought you wanted to get home in a hurry," Griff pointed out, finally giving up trying to rest on the settee. Charles stirred at his feet but didn't seem any more inclined to move than Joe at that moment.

"That was before. This is now. Pa is headed this way. Besides, this makes it easy for him to find us. If we were out on the trail, there's a good chance he'd miss us," Joe explained and except for the little sly smile that kept threatening to break out on Joe's face, Candy would have bought the explanation.

"Oh yeah, I'll believe that story, Cartwright - when pigs fly! What was it? The doctor got a cute nurse or something? She promise to come up and take real good care of you?" Candy teased his friend and flopped onto the bed, forgetting his own wound needed babying.

Joe just crossed his arms and grinned, reminding Griff of a wily old tomcat who had a mouse cornered.

"All right, tomorrow morning I'll go sell the horses. But let me remind you of something, Joe. This ain't a very big town. If we have to stay here for any length of time, ol' Griff here is liable to want to take his boredom out on your sorry carcass. That is if there is enough left when I get done with you!"

It was pushing on towards noon before Candy and Griff finally found their way out of the shabby hotel-saloon-restaurant- and stage station. Looking around the sad little town, Griff decided you could count the sights on one hand and still have enough fingers left over to make a fist. But it had suited their needs. It had a doctor and a telegraph. And now he hoped it had a gentleman at the livery stable who was generous enough to buy the sorry horses they had rode in on two days ago. He would let Candy do the dickering.

"Well, I tell you, boy," and the livery owner spit a stream of brown tobacco juice just passed Griff's boot. "These horses done seen better days."

Candy tried to not let the "boy" epithet rile him. "All they need is some rest and care," a lot like a couple of cowboys I know, he finished to himself. It wouldn't do to let the other man know he was desperate.

"And in the mean time, they eat me out of house and home! Besides, unless you know somethin' I don't, there ain't a lot of call for extra horses 'round these parts." The stable owner hitched up on pair of dingy gray trousers he wore so that the patch on the knee hit where is was intended. He squinted again at the two young men before him. He knew the story. They'd ridden in with a third man two days ago, looking for all the world like they had been to Hell and cheated the Devil himself. There'd been some talk about who the third man was, especially after a telegram had been sent up north. But the livery stable owner had his doubts that any of it was true. Now they had come to foist off their horses on him, probably, he thought for some drinking and gambling money. When they were tired of doing that, they would be back and steal their horses. He wasn't about to be conned.

"Look," Griff finally spoke up, "We'll even throw in our saddles."

Again the stream of brown spittle found its way just passed Griff's boot.

"How much you want for the whole lot?" the other man asked but having a price already in mind.

Briefly Candy and Griff conferred. "A hundred bucks," Candy answered, feeling Griff's unease at his back.

"A hundred bucks! They ain't worth fifty with the saddles thrown in for good measure!"

"I'll give you ten thousand for them," a familiar deep voice said right behind them.

Candy whirled and nearly knocked Griff down as he did so. He felt Mr. Cartwright's firm handshake and while he briefly slapped his employer's back, Candy felt the world lift from his own. He could turn Joe over to his father and know that his friend would be cared for. Jamie and Jared stood a half step behind Ben and once Ben had released Candy's hand, they surged forward, pelting Candy with questions.

Griff found his own hands engulfed by Ben Cartwright's firm handshake but for some reason, couldn't lift his eyes to meet the man's worn and tired face.

"Where is Joseph?" Ben asked and Candy heard the weariness and yet the hope in the words.

"He's down at the hotel. Room four. When we left him, he said he was going to take a nap. Mr. Cartwright, he don't look real good but he's alive."

With a quick nod, Ben turned to stride up the street. Jamie and Jared went to follow him but found Candy and Griff holding them back.

 "You let your pa and Joe have a couple of minutes alone, hear me?" Candy warned but there was no animosity to his words, only concern that the two men who meant so much to him have a little privacy.
 "Candy," Griff spoke up, "It's kind of silly but I want to see that happen. That way I know I did it for all the right reasons. That it wasn't all about revenge. That it was for something else."

 All Candy could do was shrug his shoulders. "I thought you didn't believe in all that family and love business!" Still holding onto the younger boys' shoulders to keep them checked, Candy and Griff turned from the now forgotten livery stable man, and headed up the street, their pace slow enough that the silver-hair man in front of them would reach the goal before them.

 "Let's just say that I got myself an education on the subject, being around these fool Cartwrights."

 "Hey!" the stable owner called after them, "what about this horses?"

 "We just gave them to you!" Candy called back.

 Joe had stretched out on the soft bed again, trying to find a position that didn't remind him of what he had been through. His hands still throbbed, the broken bones now set in the one but that didn't stop the sensation. He hadn't wanted to come right out and tell Griff and Candy but he knew he was at the absolute limit to his endurance. He could not have gotten back into the saddle and ridden for a hundred yards much less the hundred or so miles between him and the Ponderosa. The sale of the horses he knew would give them two things: the ready cash for good meals to put meat on all their bones and the rest Joe so desperately needed. Once he was rested somewhat, they could figure out the next step. But rest and food had become first priorities.

 He had nearly dropped off to sleep when he heard the hotel room door open. Not bothering to open his eyes, he figured it was just Candy returning from the stable since he didn't hear the click-click of Charles' paws on the floor. In fact, the only sound that came to him was no sound at all. The edge of the bed dipped like someone sat on it but Joe couldn't manage the energy to open his eyes right then to even ask Candy what he wanted. What ever it was, Joe decided, could wait until after his nap.

Then it happened.
Against his cheek he felt the back of a hand. The hand wasn't hard but it wasn't soft either as it gently lay there, pressing a caress with just enough pressure that Joe knew it was there. Before he could rise from his somnolent state, he heard the sharp in take of breath. Using his one good hand, Joe blindly grabbed at the hand before it could leave his face.

No words were needed as father and son found the other. Through the thin fabric of Joe's shirt, Ben could feel the fragile strength and hesitated to do what he truly longed to do: hold his youngest blood son to him with all his might. But Joe had no reservations and with rapidly failing strength, gave his father all he had left in him. With his father there with him now, Joe knew there would be a tomorrow. And it would be better than today.


Three weeks isn't a long time but in those weeks, the unlikely trio of Candy, Griff and Joe made their own separate recoveries upon returning to the Ponderosa. Offered a place in the house so he could receive Hop Sing's full attention, Griff nonetheless refused and resumed his place in the bunkhouse. There was only so much mothering Griff figured he could stand from the little Celestial and he had reached his limit by the end of the first afternoon they had returned. His wound healing properly, Griff had taken back up his duties on the ranch by the end of the second day but he noticed a certain reluctance on Charles' part to leave the yard. It wasn't until he caught the dog trotting with a purpose towards the kitchen door that he discovered the reason. There by the door was a plate full of meat. Looking at them carefully, Griff knew they weren't table scraps although they had been cleverly disguised as such. Scratching the dog between the ears, Griff glimpsed into the kitchen just in time to see Hop Sing go back to making bread. Wily little old man, Griff thought.

But now three weeks later and all of them, as well as Charles, were beginning to show true all-around signs of recovery. As such, Mr. Cartwright was throwing a party that night. Griff and Candy had been drafted to hang the colorful paper lanterns that would light the yard that night. Joe, still nominally on bed rest orders from Paul Martin was busy giving orders himself.  With general catcalls and bantering, he was also being ignored.

"Take a break, boys!" Ben called as he sauntered from the house and out onto the porch. In his hands, he carried several envelopes that when Joe caught sight of them, made him smile. "Griff, Candy, come here a moment, would you?"

"Mr. Cartwright, if you think for one minute that this ain't gonna be some shindig, you are sadly mistaken," Griff quipped, wiping the back of his neck with a bandanna.

"Well, I am glad to hear you approve, Griff. And I hope what I have here will make it special for both of you. You and Candy, that is."

Candy traded quick looks with Joe but all Joe did was rock back a little in his rocking chair, a smile hidden poorly behind his casted hand.
"What you two did goes beyond anything I have ever experienced or even heard tell about. I have no words that truly express how thankful I am that you did what you did. Joseph and I thought long and hard about how to go about rewarding you because, whether you want it or not, you are deserving of a reward. So, "Ben held out one of the envelopes in his hand to Candy. "I promised a reward of ten thousand dollars for Reinhart, dead or alive. I know that you have long wanted a place to settle down and call your own, Candy. There's five thousand dollars in that envelope. Half the reward money. That should let you buy yourself some land and set yourself up in good style."

Looking into the envelope, Candy could see the green of the bills, more of them than he had ever seen in his whole life and it rocked him to see them there in his hand. "Mr. Cartwright," he started to protest but Ben held his hand up and Candy floundered to a stop.

"Griff, I knew that mere money wouldn't begin to thank you for saving my son's life because I know you faced a very overwhelming fear to do it. That speaks volumes about your character, young man. I took the liberty of writing to the Parole Board. I got their reply this morning. Last week they held a special meeting and voted to release you free and clear. Ben held out the second envelope that Griff hesitatingly took, "you should be pretty well set. A free man, able to do as he pleases."

Like Candy, the money Griff held in the fat envelope was more than he had ever laid eyes on before in his life.  It was more than most men would ever earn and here Mr. Cartwright had just handed it to him like it was nothing. He met the dark eyes of the man who had handed it to him. No it was more than nothing; it was an immeasurable 'thank you' for having saved his son's life.

"I don't mean to be uncourteous and say that I don't want your gifts, Mr. Cartwright, but I didn't do it for the reward. Not even for the release from parole.”  Nervously, Griff let the envelope tap in his hand then laid it back on the table beside Ben.

"Like he said, Mr. Cartwright, I don't want to sound ungrateful, but I didn't do it for the money either and I think you know that. Whether hardhead here, " and Candy gestured to Griff, "wants to admit it or not, we did it for something else you can't begin to put a price on." Duplicating Griff's move, Candy laid his envelope on top of the other one there on the table.
"You don't understand. I want you to have this money," Ben protested.

"If it's all the same to you, Mr. Cartwright, I'd rather have your hand in friendship, yours and Joe's, than a hundred of them envelopes," and Griff held out his hand to Ben.

With a smile, Griff found his hand engulfed by the senior Cartwright's strong grasp.  That grasp spoke loudly to Griff.  It spoke of more than the implied gratitude. It spoke of permanence. Of  belonging. Of something Griff finally knew he needed above all else.


Epilogue Four
Distant Grief

By Meira Bracha

October 2002

Meira saw our story with the three epilogues and the invitation from more.  She wasn't quite sure we were serious but she tendered this addition anyway.  We're glad she did - why should a Bonanza story ever leave out Adam?

Meira:  When I read the story I found myself wondering if Adam was being kept informed of what was happening, and how he was reacting. I know Griff thought he’d heard that there was "another brother in Europe", but I decided that it was not unrealistic for his information not to be up to date. I put Adam in Boston, which is where I left him at the end of "Responsibilities", which would have taken place about two years prior to the action in this story.

This is kind of a "What Was Happening at the Same Time" epilogue

Sunday, May 2

It was so hard to concentrate on anything. Losing his beloved youngest son made any concern with what was going on around him seem pointless and even unseemly, as if it were a betrayal of Joe’s memory. But no, Ben reminded himself, Joe was not his youngest. He may have been the last natural born son in the family, but there was a grieving young man in the house whom Ben had adopted. As Griff had reminded him, Jamie was Ben’s son too and had come to mean as much to him as his other three. Ben had just resolved to find the boy and reassure him of that fact when Jamie came into the room and tentatively approached his father’s desk.

Ben couldn’t form any words to convey what he was feeling to Jamie, so he rose and gathered the young man in his arms and held on tight. The two embraced wordlessly for a few minutes before Jamie pulled away. Something had been troubling him, which he felt he had to ask. "Pa, have you let Adam know…you know… about Joe?" Jamie found he couldn’t say his slain brother’s name without choking back a sob.

Ben sat down heavily in his desk chair and put his head in his hands. "I mean to write him a letter before I go to bed tonight." As if there was any point in going to bed. How could he sleep?

"But Pa," continued Jamie, diffidently, "A letter might take weeks to get to him. Shouldn’t we send him a telegram?"

Ben replied through pursed lips. "How can I tell Adam his brother is dead in a few clipped sentences? How can I do that to him? I want to see him, but if he drops everything and comes rushing out here in response to such a wire, he might feel compelled to turn around and go back as soon as possible to tend to his business, just like he did the last time. If he does come, I want him to stay for a while."

Jamie persisted. "Can’t we say that in the wire? It just seems to me that if he gets a letter and finds out that he’s spent a few weeks acting like nothing is wrong when something so terrible is wrong he ain’t gonna feel too good about that. I know I sure wouldn’t."

The usually decisive Ben Cartwright was genuinely undone by the effort of resolving this dilemma. Jamie offered to compose a telegram and show it to Ben for approval before he sent it. Ben agreed with the slightest of nods.

The message that Jamie delivered to the telegraph office the next day was sent out over the wires as follows:

After the wire was sent, Jamie worried about using the words "loving brother". He hardly knew Adam. Maybe Adam would think his adopted brother was presuming too much. But the youth reassured himself with the thought that the important thing was to help Adam maybe feel not quite so bad at getting the terrible news. Let him know he was as much part of the family as if he were here with them, just as Jamie needed to know he was as much part of the family as if he were born to it.

Monday, May 3

Adam stared at the flimsy sheet of paper from the telegraph company, as if he could will its words not to be true, or at the very least force them to provide more information. Joe killed! How? By whom? Or could the message mean he died in an accident? Oh, Pa, how can you stand it? Another loss, another piece of you gone!

"I’m not sure I can stand it," he thought. "Since I was twelve I’ve been the oldest of three brothers. It was always Adam, Hoss and Little Joe. How can I be the only one left? How could this have happened?"

Adam spent the morning secluded in his office. At first, he couldn’t begin to make any rational plans. Then he contemplated defying the telegram’s directive and rushing straight to Nevada. Finally he was able to read more deeply between the lines. "Pa remembers how I had to hurry back here after Hoss died. I know that hurt him. This time, in addition to the grieving, there are going to be some complicated legal and financial matters to work out, things we won’t even be ready to think about for a while." Adam wrote out a return wire and sent it to the telegraph office with his office clerk.


That night, sitting in his parlor, glass in hand, a bottle of whiskey on the side table, Adam thoughts were all recollections of his brother Joe. For someone who put such stock in language, Adam found that his most powerful memories did not involve words. He remembered--

the tiny fist of a squalling baby, born too soon, wrapped around a worried twelve-year-old brother’s finger,
sticky hands of a little boy reaching around a big brother’s neck as they went for a "horsy ride",
the surprisingly powerful punch of a hot-tempered, near-grown youth thrown at the jaw of a bossy older brother,
gentle hands wiping cool water on the burning face and parched lips of a man who was at the brink of madness and death in a remote desert wilderness, urgent hands practically dragging an older brother into a buggy to get him home in time to say goodbye to his beloved middle brother, a strong handshake from a man saying a reluctant farewell.

Adam shuddered as the realization hit him that that last memory was of his final goodbye to Joe.

Monday, May 17

Pa’s letter arrived in Boston.

My Dear Son Adam,

I know the news about Joe must have shocked you to the core. I cannot believe it is true myself, though we buried him today, next to his mother. Near as we can tell, he and one of the hands were tricked into stopping to help a man with a broken wagon as they road home from selling some horses. This man killed them both. We suspect that the murderer is Wolfgang Reinhardt, whose brother was hung on my testimony seven years ago. Reinhardt recently escaped from prison, and he left his knife at the scene of the crime. Clem is organizing a posse, but Candy and Griff are going off on their own search. Griff has a notion they might have a better chance of catching him. I know that I want the bastard caught and punished, killed actually, but I also know that that will not bring my Joseph back.

Joe showed such strength of character this past year. You would have been so proud of him. While grieving deeply for Alice and the baby she carried, he was not letting his grief prevent him from moving on with his life. I hope I can follow his example. You know better than anybody that I have had to do this before. I just don’t know if I can do it one more time. Griff reminded me that I can’t forget about Jamie, and I won’t. He is truly my fourth son. I can’t forget about you either, my firstborn. Adam, I do not want you to think that Joe’s death should alter your decision not to return to the Ponderosa permanently. As I told you when you left, your life is your own. I do hope that you can arrange things so you can come for a lengthy visit. If for some reason that is not possible, I will understand.


Adam’s eyes were damp as he finished reading this letter. He sat for a moment, calming himself. "What you ask, I’m already planning, Pa," he said to himself. "I’ll be leaving for Nevada next week."

Adam shuffled through the rest of his mail. He was surprised to see another letter with a Virginia City postmark. The return address was even more startling, ‘Helen Gantry’. It took a moment to attach a face to that name. She had served on the school board with Pa for many years. Adam remembered her as honest and dedicated, but rather a busybody. He slit open the envelope. Inside were a handwritten note and two folded newspaper clippings. He read the note first.

My Dearest Adam,

I wanted to express my condolences on your terrible and sudden loss. All of Virginia City’s hearts are with the Cartwrights at this terrible time. I thought you might appreciate the enclosed clippings as remembrances.

Yours truly,

Miss Helen Gantry

He unfolded the first clipping. It was Joe’s obituary. "Joseph Cartwright, son of Benjamin Cartwright and the late Marie Cartwright, brother of Adam and James Cartwright and the late Eric Cartwright, husband of the late Alice Cartwright, was laid to rest on..."

Adam gently smoothed out the clipping with his hands and placed it between the pages of a book. He then turned his attention to the second clipping. The side that was showing contained the bottom of a dry goods store advertisement and the top of an article about the condition of the pedestrian boardwalks in Virginia City. He turned the piece of paper over and what he read took his breath away. "Joseph Cartwright’s body was found chained and burned alive…"

A wave of nausea passed through Adam, but he was hardly conscious of it. "Oh, Joe! Oh, Pa, why didn’t you tell me?"

Adam got up and began pacing his small office, the phrase "burned alive" repeating itself over and over in his mind. Coherent thought was impossible. Adam felt like a caged animal. When the four walls that surrounded him became too confining he burst abruptly through his office door and headed for the stairs that would take him down to the building exit. In his turmoil he didn’t notice the clerk laden with files approaching from the opposite direction. They collided, and Adam tumbled down eight steps to the next landing.

Adam lay there speechless and immobilized from the shooting pains that ran from his lower back down his left leg. When he had recovered enough to try to rise, he found that the offending leg buckled under him. The effects of his ten-year-old back injury, which had become just a minor, nagging disturbance in recent years, were reasserting themselves in full force.

The apologetic clerk, with the assistance of several warehousemen, managed to get him home and into bed. A physician was summoned who prescribed prolonged bed rest. This would prove to be one of the most frustrating periods of Adam Cartwright’s life. He barely tolerated the ministrations of the aide who was hired to tend to him. He virtually ignored the visitors who came to pay sick calls, so that only one friend made the effort to return more than once.

Thursday, May 27

"Useless! Useless to my family, useless to my business, useless to myself! Charlie, I shouldn’t be lying here in Boston, I should be with my father and Jamie on the Ponderosa." Other than variations on this refrain, Adam had hardly spoken during the past ten days. Charles Weston sat at his bedside, at a loss how to comfort his broken, suffering friend.

They heard the sound of a muffled conversation from the townhouse’s entry hall. A minute later, the aide knocked on the bedroom door. "Come in already," Adam growled.

The aide entered and handed his boss an envelope containing a telegram. "What now?" muttered Adam, as he unfolded the envelope’s contents. His eyes opened wide and he gasped as he read:


When he finally exhaled he commented dryly, as he handed the paper to Charles, "Fortunately my heart is healthier than my back."

Wednesday, July 14

Adam graduated from complete bed rest to hobbling out to his parlor to spend part of each day reading and catching up with work which was brought to him from his office. Monday he had read with extreme horror and profound relief a letter from his father detailing Joe’s ordeal and rescue, at least as much of the story as Ben had been able to pry out of Joe, Candy and Griff. Though Adam knew Candy only slightly, and had never met Griff, he felt overwhelming gratitude to the two men who had persisted beyond all reason and put their lives on the line to find Joe.

Today’s mail contained a letter addressed in a familiar backwards-slanting hand, which Adam tore open eagerly.

Dear Adam,
Sorry I gave you and everybody else such a scare. Also sorry to hear you’re laid up. I meant it when I told you last time that I’d like to visit you in Boston some day. So how about a bet? I bet you I’ll be fit to travel before you are and I’ll come there and you’ll show me the sights. But betting’s only fun if you try to beat me, so get better soon big brother. Sorry this note is so short, but if Pa thinks I’m strong enough to write a long letter he might decide I’m ready to keep the books or something and I’m kind of enjoying my leisure.

Monday, August 23

The tall, dark-haired (but balding and graying) gentleman stood on the rail station platform, leaning heavily on two canes, scanning the crowd of disembarking passengers for a familiar face. He almost missed the small, gaunt man who was also peering around, looking just a bit lost. But when the latter’s face lit up after catching Adam’s eye, Adam recognized Joe’s broad smile and laughing eyes. Adam put both canes in his left hand and reached out to shake Joe’s right hand, but Joe lifted his still bandaged appendage apologetically. In place of a handshake, Joe reached up and carefully put his arm around his big brother’s shoulders.

"So where can a fellow buy his brother a drink in this town?" he asked.

"Depends on which brother is doing the buying," came the reply.

"You are, of course, big brother," responded Joe with a smirk.

Adam had an immediate comeback. "Uh-huh. Well, then I know a cheap, tawdry place that should suit you perfectly."

With that Joe picked up his bag with his left hand and the brothers began making their way slowly up the platform and out to the street, shoulder to (a bit below) shoulder.


For real this time – unless one of you readers would like to take a hand at a fifth epilogue.

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