Phoenix Chained

The First of
The Phoenix Trilogy

The Tahoe Ladies

This work of fiction had its genesis in a horrifyingly real situation for one of our writers. It is to her that we dedicate this work for she is still caught within the flames……….

Chapter One: What is the difference between revenge and justice?

“I would love to know what has kept him this time!” Adam Cartwright scowled to his father. “Why is it that Joe is never on time when it comes to working?  You know, Pa, if he were a hired hand, you would have fired him years ago.”

“And I wouldn’t have blistered the britches of a hired hand either for being late to work,” Ben pointed out as he looked in the direction of his oldest son, trying to remember if Adam had ever been late for anything in his life. Probably not, he thought. It seemed to Ben that Adam had always been as he was right then: rock solid, temperate and beside him. As such, Ben had grown to rely so heavily on his eldest son when it came to running the Ponderosa.  He had also come to rely on Adam for something else all together different: pointing out his youngest son’s faults. If there was a problem between the two, Ben knew he would hear it, if at all, from Adam first.  That part of his oldest son, he didn’t like but knew that it came essentially from a wellspring of love and protectiveness that Adam kept for his brothers. Anyone who knew the four Cartwrights would always think that Adam was probably the least caring of them when in fact Ben knew that it wasn’t so.  Adam just kept it out of the public eye. But right then there was not a concerned look to Adam. It was a look more of aggravation.

“Well, maybe he and Hop Sing ran into some trouble in town this morning,” Hoss, always quick to defend his younger brother, added.

“Only ‘trouble’ he ever runs into usually has a skirt on and you know it, Hoss.” Adam shot back. He was hot and miserable that morning and it was showing plainly in his temperament.

“STOP IT!” Ben finally shouted.  He had heard enough of this from his sons, particularly Adam.  At every opportunity he had complained that Joe wasn’t where he was suppose to be, starting mildly but sliding up the scale towards vexation. And Ben was finally putting his foot down. He too was annoyed that his youngest wasn’t out there helping as he had been instructed to do after he returned from town with Hop Sing and the supplies. At one point, Ben had considered sending Hoss back to the house to see what was holding things up but had decided otherwise when one of the sickle bar cutters had gotten jammed and then broken by the heavy hay they were cutting that morning.  Hoss had been needed to repair the damage done and that only left Adam to go looking.  Ben hadn’t wanted to do that either. With the way things had been between Adam and Joe lately, they would have both been sporting barked knuckles when they came back out to the hay fields. Probably a black eye as well. The two had done their best to try and keep it from their father, but Ben knew that the dissention between them had taken a step he had never wanted to see taken: there had been an all out fight, fists flying on both parts, not long ago. The only witness had been Hoss, who had stepped in and broken it up, but not before taking a few punches himself. Not one of them had said anything to their father but Ben would've had to have been blind to miss the bruise Adam had sported along his right jawline. He had surreptitiously checked out Joseph’s left knuckles and found the telltale scrapes he thought he would find.  That didn’t surprise Ben in the least seeing how Joe’s temper was notably the shortest thing on the ranch. But it did surprise Ben to note that Joe had kept a protective arm wrapped around his midsection for a few days when he thought no one was watching him. Usually it was a case that Joe fought Adam. In the past, Adam had refused to fight back but it was obvious now that he changed his mind and Joe had paid the price. Ben had decided that morning to sit the two of them down and talk things out but would wait for the cool of the evening to do so.

Now, he was chastising himself for not having the conversation earlier.  He was mad that Joseph had not appeared as instructed. “Joseph is too old to have his backside warmed but I will certainly warm his ears,” Ben said and then catching the rolled eyes of his oldest, added “ And you will remember that I am the father here.”

Straightening up from where he had bent over to inspect the cut hay, Hoss looked in the direction of the main house.  Not that he could see it. The meadow where the crew had been working since mid-morning was over a ridge from the house. But Hoss had kept an eye peeled for a sign of his brother anyway.  Joe, he could understand being late, but to have Hop Sing late was unheard of. It was almost noon and Hop Sing was to have brought lunch to the men and Hoss was hungry. That didn’t help his mood either.  Just like his father, he had heard Adam complaining and had wanted it to stop. Hoss knew the only way for it all to stop was for Joe and Hop Sing to appear right then and there with lunch, cool drinks, and for Joe to have good excuse.

At last, Ben called a halt. Nothing was going right that day. The hay was too heavy for the side bar sickles they were using and they would have to return to the house for the heavier mowers and the double teams anyway.  He would have to inspect them carefully before taking them out and using them since that had been Joseph’s job too and his youngest was clearly not following directions.  Sipping tepid water from his canteen, Ben shook his head.  Maybe Joseph wasn’t too big…

“Adam, go call the others off. We’ll head back to the house for lunch and swap the teams and mowers out.  Maybe we can salvage some of this day, but it isn’t looking like it. Hoss, you take the bay team and head back. We’ll be along,” Ben instructed, knowing these instructions were un-necessary but wanting them said anyway. “And should you see Joseph, send him directly to me.”

Hoss sure didn’t want to be his little brother right then.

As it were, all three Cartwrights and the others from the haying crew all reached the main house at the same time.  Ben noted that the wagon loaded with supplies was still sitting out front, the tarp laid back as if they were still in the process of unloading, the horses still harnessed. The kitchen door stood open but there was no sound coming from within. Still aggravated, Ben handed his horse off to Adam and headed into the kitchen, prepared to lambaste his wayward son.

The sight that met his eyes stopped him cold. Everywhere he looked in the spacious kitchen he saw destruction. Dishes broken, pots and pans laying everywhere, food spilled, the table there turned on its side, the back window broken, the curtain ripped from the rod. Ben, his heart in his throat and panic beginning to rise in him, stepped around the corner into the dining room.

And had to grab hold of the corner to keep himself upright.

The devastation that had begun in the kitchen was a mere shadow of what he found before his eyes. It was as if a tornado had gone through the house and touched everything. The dining room table, although it still stood on four legs bore gouges that ran its entire length. The chairs they had sat on just a few hours before while having breakfast and discussing the upcoming day’s agenda were now broken and splintered. The overhead chandelier had been ripped down and lay in slivers and shards on the floor.

The main room had fared no better and Ben, unable to give voice to his horror, stood mutely looking at it all. His favored leather chair, the back now bore slashes and one of Hop Sing’s butcher knives was still embedded there. The sofa had also been slashed and was tipped onto its back. And the arm of the blue chair, which now was resting against the fireplace had a deep crimson stain across it, with one leg at an odd angle, broken from the body of it. The coffee table, like the dining room table had been hacked at and the ax used still stuck into it. The gun cabinet with Ben’s collection of rifles had been attacked as well.  Even the set of horns from the first of the Ponderosa bulls that had hung over the fireplace had been torn down and tossed into the cold fireplace; the andirons there, pulled out onto the floor. The staircase railing lay dismembered on the floor; the red blanket nowhere to be seen.

Still in shock, Ben turned towards the only sound in the devastated stillness: a low moaning that seemed to be coming from his study. It too had been ravished. Ledgers, pages torn from them lay scattered like leaves in autumn. In amongst those ‘leaves’ he saw the broken frames and pictures of his wives, the wild horse statue that normally set on the table behind the sofa was now shattered; the big grandfather clock was pulled from the wall and lay broken on the floor as well. Woodenly, unwilling to see any more, Ben forced himself towards the sound, afraid of what he would find, hidden behind the upturned desk.

What he saw was Hop Sing, seated, unmoving, with his back resting against the destroyed bookshelf. His face was white and his eyes unfocused. In his hands he held what Ben first took to be a black snake then realized, stepping closer, that it was his braid, chopped from him. The sound Ben had heard was coming from him, a low keening. As Ben moved towards Hop Sing, the little man didn’t move nor even seem to realize that someone was there, even though Ben spoke his name.

“Hop Sing,” he called and gently touched him, trying to get him to focus. “Hop Sing, what happened here? Where is Joseph?” There was no response to either question. He tried again. “Where is Joe, Hop Sing?” But the faraway look remained. “Where is Little Joe?” There was still no response.

The front door crashed open and Ben heard Adam shouting the same name. But the shout died to a strangled gasp just as quickly.

The same look that had been on his father’s face now swept over Adam’s. Shock, disbelief at what he saw: the devastation of the rooms before him. But Adam also saw something his father had missed. As he slowly walked into the main room, all Adam Cartwright saw was that there was blood smeared on the floor. When his father called his name, Adam turned to find him beside Hop Sing, his father’s face white and he went to him immediately.

“What?….. Pa?” Adam was unable to speak or think clearly, he was so stunned. He bent beside them and saw Hop Sing’s state.

“Find your brother, Adam,” was all his father could get out.

Taking a quick glance around the main room, Adam called for Hoss to come and help him, alternating with shouts for his youngest brother. Anger was now taking over and Adam found himself shaking as adrenaline began pushing through him, overcoming all else. He grabbed the blue chair from before the fireplace and threw it half way across the room. With a mighty shove, he pushed the sofa back and out of his way, headed now for the stairs, bounding up them two at a time.

He hoped to find the upstairs rooms had been untouched but it was a hope unfulfilled. The sideboard in the hallway had the doors pulled from it and a quick glance into his father’s room showed even the massive bed had been dismembered, the mattress slashed, clothing from the bureau strewn about the room and the chair thrown halfway through the window.  Still calling for Hoss’ help, Adam went on down the hall to his own room.  It was the same destruction as he had seen in his father’s room: total. Open doors to his two brothers’ rooms echoed the same scene. In the guest room, Adam’s anger boiling over now, he picked up what was left of one of his favorite books and sent it hurtling through the broken window with a strangled cry of frustration. Everywhere he had looked was utter carnage.

With his heart pounding, Adam turned and started back down the hall, still screaming for Hoss to help him, Joe to answer him. Where the Hell was Hoss?  But more to the point: where was Joe?  As he hit the top of the stairs, both questions were answered.

Just inside the front door, seeing the damage done for the first time stood Hoss, tears streaming down his face. In his massive arms was the still form of his brother Joseph, beaten and bloody.

As he stood on the porch that evening, Ben Cartwright didn’t feel the cool evening breeze that came to wash across his anguished features. He couldn’t stay inside his vandalized home another moment and had stepped to the porch to get himself under control. His thoughts were black with anger as he stood there, wanting to slash out at someone for what had happened but could find no target.  It had been bad enough that his home was destroyed but for one of his sons to have been beaten…..He tried to shake the black thoughts from his mind.

Paul Martin stepped out of the house and rolling his sleeves down, went over to his long time friend, his heart heavy with sadness. Ben was so lost in thought that he didn’t hear him approach and started when Paul put his hand to Ben’s shoulder to get his attention. Ben didn’t have to ask.

“I have never in my life seen a man beat that bad, Ben. I am not going to sugar coat it. He took a beating…but he also gave one, my friend.  I could give you a list as long as my own arm but suffice it to say, Joe will recover.  It is going to take a bit of time. But there is something I want you to know that isn’t going to go down well.” The doctor paused, figuring how to say it.

When the pause stretched out, Ben swallowed hard and steeled himself.  As long as his son survived, he knew he could handle things. It would take patience and love to help his son get well and if there were qualities that Ben Cartwright possessed in abundance, they were the two. He watched as the doctor seemed to gather himself before continuing.

“Ben, both of his hands are broken. I am fairly sure that his right one will heal, given time, and he’ll be able to use it.” And again the doctor stopped speaking and almost looked away from his friend’s face.

“And his left?” Ben’s voice was husky as he asked.

“His left was crushed.  I tried to lay it out as straight as I could when I splinted it but ….” How could he say those words? “I doubt if Joe will be able to use that hand again, Ben. Like I said it was crushed. All of the bones in it are just so many pieces. If it heals at all, the bones are liable to become just a solid mass.  Fused together.”

Ben turned his back on the doctor and looked out over the yard into the moonlight, searching for something to calm the rage he felt.  He felt so helpless and suddenly, very old.

“And there is nothing I can do for Hop Sing.  My books would call it a catatonic state. He doesn’t react to any sort of stimulus, doesn’t speak or even seem to know where he is.  Joe, we can heal, after a fashion, but I am not sure Hop Sing ever will.  We need to keep someone with him at all times, keep talking to him and see if we can bring him around.” The doctor said, wondering how much of a catatonic state Ben was in right then himself. Paul had seen Ben in all sorts of situations over the years and marveled at how the man held himself together in some of the worst times.  But the man he was watching now wasn’t the same he had seen in years past.  There was a very angry look to him.

“Why don’t you go in and set with Joe, Ben?” He didn’t say that with the medications he had given the young man, he was fairly certain that he wouldn’t awake until sometime the next day.

Stiffly, Ben turned. Paul Martin saw the tears coursing down his face. If I could take this day away from you, Ben, I would, he thought.

Hoss was trying still to right the damage in the main room when his father came back into the house, but his heavy heart was not in it. He and Adam had done what they could but the destruction was just so absolute. They had managed with hammers and nails and mattresses from the bunkhouse to make beds for their brother and cook in their father’s bedroom and had cleared away what damage they could there. Why they had chosen that room was simple. It was the one room in the house they had found no blood. Destruction, yes, but no blood and seeing the shape their brother was in, it didn’t take much to know whose blood it was they had seen.

When his father had come through the front door, Hoss was clearing away the remainder of the stair railing. The doctor hadn’t spoken with him and that upset Hoss more than words could have.

“Joe gonna be okay, ain’t he, Pa?” he asked, unsure of the look on his father’s face.  He saw what Doc Martin had seen too.

Ben stopped on the landing and found no words for his feelings.“I’ll send Adam down to help you.” And went on up the stairs, leaving Hoss’ question unanswered.

Hoss was still standing there, looking at his father’s retreating back when the doctor came back into the house. There were things that he could fix, Hoss was thinking to himself, but he wasn’t going to be able to fix everything. Was one of the things he couldn’t fix turn out to be his family?

“Doc, Joe is gonna be okay?” he asked as he watched the doctor pull a dining room chair upright and set down on it, despite its broken back.  Behind him he heard Adam’s footsteps coming down the stairs and come to stop behind him.

“I’m going to tell you the same thing I just told your father. Adam, you know it already. Joe will recover but there are liable to be some major problems.  His hands, Hoss. His left one is broken so badly he may not be able to use again properly.  If that is the case then he is going to have some big hurtles to get over. He’ll have to learn everything over again, how to write with his right hand, tie a knot, button a shirt, everything that he did before with his left hand.  You can’t imagine it all Hoss.”

“It got busted that bad? How?” Hoss’ face scrunched itself into a look of pure misery

“I don’t know how-“ the doctor started but Adam cut him short, giving vent to the anger he had tried to keep under control since that afternoon.

“We both know, Hoss! Somebody stomped it!  You and I have seen that sort of thing in fights before.  We never thought about what it does to the man. How it can destroy his life.  Well, someone did that to our baby brother and I for one intend to see that he pays for it! For that and every other piece of our lives that he touched!” Adam finished by shouting, his rage was so great.

“I will not see the law taken into your own hands, Adam Cartwright.” The three men turned to find Roy Coffee standing just inside the door, his hands spread before him.  He had been out of his office when the same ranch hand that Ben had dispatched to get the doctor came to report the problem. As soon as he had heard, he had ridden out to see for himself as he had trouble believing what the deputy had told him. Now as he stood looking around himself, he decided that the story had been under-told. And that if unleashed, Adam Cartwright would make good on his threat.

“This goes beyond the law, Roy! Look at this!  There is nothing under this roof that hasn’t been damaged, broken, smashed, destroyed. And that,” Adam’s voice shook as he pointed to the stain on the back of the blue velvet chair, “That is my brother’s blood. And it is every where in this house. So you talk to someone else because I for one am not going to listen to you,” Adam argued back, his body shaking now with barely controlled fury.

Quietly, Roy Coffee went over and stood before the younger man. He had known Adam Cartwright most this man’s life and had never ever seen him losing control as he was right then.

“Nothing is above the law,” the sheriff said evenly. “Now you simmer down, young man. This isn’t like you at all, Adam. Get control of yourself. You aren’t thinking clearly, boy. You don’t even know who to go after, do you?”

“Whoever it is will be sporting some mean looking bruises, Roy. From the looks of things, Joe may have gotten in some solid hits on someone. And when we can get Hop Sing to start talking again, I am sure he can help us out.” Paul Martin stepped in between the sheriff and Adam. “But for right now, neither of them is going to be able to tell you anything. Hoss, how about you and I see about making some coffee and sandwiches.” The doctor and Hoss moved into the kitchen, leaving the still seething Adam with the sheriff.

“You had any trouble out this way lately? Something that would lead to any of this?” Roy asked, hoping to force Adam into a more logical frame of mind. When Adam simply shook his head “no”, Roy reached out and put a fatherly hand on Adam’s shoulder, trying to calm him.

“Roy, don’t try to stop me. You didn’t see what I did today. The house, Hop Sing, Joe. My father…..”

“Ben get…” Roy started but again Adam just shook his head no.

“I don’t know how to explain it. Pa seems to have just lost something this afternoon.”

“I think I understand, Adam.” And looking at the ruin around him, Roy knew the expression he would find for Ben and his sons.  He had seen it several times, different from this but the same. But then it was on the faces of women who had been raped.

Upstairs, Ben Cartwright sat down in the rocker that had been mended somewhat and placed next to his son. With a gentle hand, he reached over and shoved an errant curl off his son’s forehead, trying hard not to look at the battered face.  Tears came unbidden to Ben’s eyes and rolled down his cheeks. Here was his handsome and laughing son whom he had been so angry with earlier in the day for not showing up. That son, his easy smile now gone in a mass of bruises, the lips split. Here was the son who cared the most about his physical appearance, battered almost into unrecognizable form.  Ben found he couldn’t look at Joe’s face. He pulled the blanket further up onto Joe’s chest, still trying to cover the marks of pain. Without wanting to, Ben touched his son’s left hand lying in splinted bandages on top of the bedclothes. He could tell that the hand was swollen to nearly twice its normal size and could see the dark bruising now forming there. It seemed so cruel to Ben. This was the son who wore gloves to protect his hands and now those hands were beyond protection.  Ben longed to pick up that hand and hold not just the hand but his whole son in his embrace, to take away the pain, to make the bruises, the cuts, the unbelievable horribleness just disappear.

“Why?’ he whispered into the dark night air, asking everyone and no one.

Across from him, lying on the other makeshift bed, Hop Sing had watched it all. From the time he had come to find the white haired man leaning over him and speaking to him in words he could neither understand nor respond to, he had watched. He seemed unable to do anything more than that. Held tight in his grasp was his que, his ticket to Heaven as it were. Without it, he would not be able to meet his ancestors. But it was not suppose to be in his hands. He couldn’t remember why it was there and couldn’t make his mind and body work to get it back where it belonged, attached to him.

He had watched another man whom he took to be a doctor working over the other bed.  The young man there, he knew that he knew who he was but wasn’t able to put a name to him. An emotion, yes. Hop Sing knew that he loved the man and there was a great longing to arise and go to him. But again, he couldn’t make his body do what his mind was asking.  So he simply watched.

When the doctor had stepped away, a man dressed all in black had spoken to him, and although he had tried to listen carefully, he couldn’t make out the words he was using. He simply couldn’t understand the language the man spoke. But he did the tone.  It was a very caring tone. Now the first man, the one with silvery white hair, was coming into his line of sight and sitting with the hurt one. Hop Sing watched as the man touched the one on the bed. His first thought was that the older man meant to hurt his loved one and Hop Sing struggled to make his body do his bidding for his first impulse was to protect.  But it was to no avail so he watched and was relieved to see there was no malice involved. He saw the love so evident in every move the older man made, the tears on his face and the restrained touch to the younger man’s face then the hand. But then the older man sat back and just stared into the air, tears coursing down his face. Here, Hop Sing thought, was a love greater than his own.

Hop Sing finally allowed himself to sleep, not afraid by all that he could not understand.  He felt secure that the love he had seen would protect all that it could.

Somewhere off in the far distance, Joe could hear a rooster crowing loudly. ‘Funny that Hoss hasn’t been trying to get me up’ was his first thought then he tried to roll over and snuggle back down into his bed. He found he couldn’t move, his body felt weighted to the bed. He tried opening his eyes but found only one would and that only with a great deal of effort was he able to get both open at once. Confusion reigned within him as he looked around the room. It was his father’s room but the bed was too hard to be his father’s. And what was he doing in his father’s bed to begin with, he wondered. He tried to bring his hand to his head, thinking that it would help his sudden and intense headache. But instead, he found his father there, restraining his hand, keeping him from moving. Pa was saying something to him. Then within his line of vision, he saw Doc Martin. What the Hell had he gotten into now? Must have been a good one, the way he felt….then it all came back to him in a nauseating rush of events.

Even as his stomach tried to empty itself onto the floor, Joe was fighting to keep his wits about him. He could feel his father’s strong hands on his shoulders and hear the soothing tones in his voice but blackness kept reaching for him. He tried to push it away with his hands but they were too heavy to move. The dry retching over, Joe felt his father ease him back onto the bed. Then Doc Martin was giving him something to drink. It was cool and Joe swallowed, even though it hurt his throat to do so, closing his eyes to the pain.

After a few moments, Joe gathered himself back up and opened his eyes again. This time he was more fully aware of his surroundings.

More to the point, he remembered what had happened.

“Easy, son,” his father was saying as he used a rough wet cloth to bathe his face and neck. “Just lay still.” Joe was more than willing to do just that. He let his eyes drift closed again but remained conscious. He could feel Doc Martin touching his chest and then pushing on his stomach but he couldn’t get his hands lifted to push him away nor find his voice to tell him to stop. But his father was there, he could hear the soft soothing sound of his father’s voice and he let himself fall back into the waiting darkness, assured that when he awoke again, his father would still be there.

The shadows were lengthening as Joe regained consciousness for a second time that day. This time, he didn’t try to move anything but his eyes, because everything else on his body hurt.  Beside the bed, he could see his father sitting in the chair, asleep. At the other side of the bed, Hoss sat on the floor, looking out the window, his back to the bed. And Adam was stretched across the foot of the bed, reclining on his elbow, reading. Adam was first to see his brother was awake.

When Adam called his name, Ben became instantly awake. He moved quickly to the bed. “Joseph…don’t try to move, son. Hoss, go get Doc Martin. Tell him Joe’s awake again.”  Ben brought a drink to his son’s lips, which he accepted readily.
Doc Martin did a quick examination, noting how his patient reacted with each prod and finally nodded his approval then cautioned “Okay, Ben, but keep it brief. I want him resting again,” and allowed Ben back at his son’s side.

“What happened here Joseph? Who did this?”

And the story Joe told haltingly made the men in the room seethe with anger.

“Hop Sing and I got home just before noon. He went into the kitchen to start lunch to take out to you all at the hay field. I was just starting to unload the wagon when I heard him hollering at someone. Then there was a loud crash in the house. I ran to see what was going on. They were in the main room. Guess what I had heard was the clock being tipped over.”

“ ‘They’? Joseph, you said ‘they’. Who were they?” Ben asked softly, stroking Joe’s arm as far as the splint on it would allow.

“They were kids, Pa. Couldn’t have been more than 14, 15 years old. Must have been about 5 or 6 of them. Boys, really. When I came into the house, they had Hop Sing held down….. Oh God, is Hop Sing….?” And with the panic rising in his voice, Joe looked wildly around himself.

Ben quickly grabbed Joe’s face in both his hands and forced his son to look at him, afraid what would happen if Joe were to see Hop Sing there not physically ten foot from him but mentally in another world. “Joseph, look at me,” he commanded and after a brief moment, felt his son begin to relax beneath his hands. “Hop Sing will be all right.” Ben prayed he wasn’t lying. With his hands still cradling Joe’s face, Ben made himself hold eye contact with his son’s green eyes, ignoring the horrible bruises surrounding them.  Slowly, ever so slowly, he watched as they closed, the lashes long and soft beneath his thumbs as he wiped the damp tears from them.

Adam was the first out of the room. He thought if he had stayed one more instant in that room he would have exploded. As it was, he only allowed his fist to hit the wall in the hallway once as Hoss had closed the door behind them.  He wanted it to be the face of whoever it had been who had brought this on them but Joe had said one word clearly enough: boys. Not men as Adam had envisioned it being but boys. Teenage boys.
“Did I hear Joe right, Adam?” Hoss asked softly, his big face showing the same anger as his older brother’s. “He said it was a bunch of kids? Kids do this much damage? I can’t believe I heard him right.”

“We both heard him right.  I think one of us needs to ride into town and tell Roy Coffee. God help me, Hoss, but I don’t care how old they are. Doc said Joe must have given as good as he got but I can't believe that. I don’t see anyone but Joe and Hop Sing in there. By my way of figuring, there should be some boys somewhere in a world of hurt. If they aren’t, I intend to make it so.” He turned on his heel, set to leave but Hoss put one of his hands out and grabbed Adam’s shoulder in a firm hard grasp. He could feel Adam shaking beneath his hand.

“No, you don’t Adam. I’ll get into town and talk with Roy. You need to stay here. You need to keep things in line here. I’ll bring Roy back out here to talk with Joe but before I leave, I want your promise that you ain’t goin’ no where lookin'.” Hoss watched as Adam’s jaw tightened and his dark eyes deepened into midnight pools of hate. Adam tried to shrug off Hoss’ hand but it only made Hoss close his grasp down a bit harder. “Promise me, Adam.  Promise me that when I come back, you’ll still be here. I need to know that somebody is helpin’ Pa with all this. And you can’t be helpin’ him and Joe if you ain’t here.” Hoss was insistent. “We have to let the law handle this Adam.”

After a long moment, Hoss saw Adam give him a barely perceivable nod. Hoss turned to head down the stairs but Adam’s voice stopped him.

“What if the law doesn’t handle it, Hoss?  What then?”

“Then we will, you and I, brother.”

All that afternoon, Hop Sing had watched the tableau before him. He had understood nothing of what was going on, only the raw emotions presented. The man in black had tried to talk with him again but Hop Sing had remained silent before him. The other had tried to take his que from his hands but Hop Sing would not allow it. Thankfully, rather than force the issue, the man in black had relented and stepped away from him.

Once Hop Sing could see the young man on the bed, he calmed down again. The feeling of love rose so strong in him that finally Hop Sing got to his feet and started to walk to the bed. But he felt weak and his body betrayed him again and he started to fall. If it had not been for the white haired man reaching out to catch him, Hop Sing was sure he would have been unable to complete his trek. As it was, the older man seemed to understand his need to be with the young man who rested there. Careful not to move him in anyway, Hop Sing sat on the narrow bed and studied his face. After what seemed an eternity, the younger man awoke and a light came to his eyes.
Briefly and in obvious pain, he asked Hop Sing how he was, was he okay? And Hop Sing understood him and answered that he was confused by what had happened. The younger man spoke again but this time he did not speak so Hop Sing could understand him. Hop Sing softly told him to rest, that they would speak again later.

Ben had watched the exchange between his beloved housekeeper and his youngest son. For a brief moment, Hop Sing and Joe had conversed in Chinese and it seemed that Hop Sing had come out of his state. But then Joe had asked him if he could remember anything about the attack and asked in English. Ben saw Hop Sing’s expression change back into a blank look then just as fleeting, back to acknowledgement of the present, saying something to Joe in his native language. Inwardly, Ben cursed himself for never having learned any of his cook’s language. Now it seemed that that was the key to unlocking the terror that had forced the man’s mind closed.

When Paul Martin came in an hour later, Hop Sing had been coaxed back onto the other narrow bed and was sleeping. While he checked on the still sleeping Joe, Ben relayed what had occurred.

“Doesn’t surprise me in the least, Ben.  Hop Sing’s mind has retreated to where he knows he’s safe. The boys who did this spoke English and that makes them scary to him. Joe spoke to him in Chinese and he understood him. Joe is safe to Hop Sing’s thinking right now.  It may take him a while but Hop Sing will come back.  Imagine a child who has been extremely frightened. That is exactly what has happened to him. Maybe we need to get Le Chan out here for him.” Paul suggested, mentioning the name of Virginia City’s most prominent Oriental physician. “I’ll send for him first thing in the morning. But I need to take care of some things right now and I need your help Ben. The swelling has gone down enough that I think we need to get casts on both of Joe’s hands. That will be the only way to hold them still while they heal. It is going to be difficult for him but it is the only way he will even have half a chance to use them again.”

They were just finishing when Hoss returned with Roy Coffee. Ben came down when he heard Roy’s voice and saw again the mutilation that set his heart into near panic.  The signs of ruin were still there but his sons had done their best to set things right. The furniture that was salvageable had been placed in its accustomed spots, the table covered with a new cloth and his desk now sat back on its legs.  The coffee table sat before the ruined sofa, the gouges in it still visible. Like wounds, Ben thought. His slashed red leather chair was nowhere to be seen so he sat in the repaired blue velvet one, conscious that the stain on the one arm was blood. Joseph’s blood.

“Hoss tells me that the vandals who did this were just kids, Ben. That Joe woke up enough to tell ya this.  That right?” Roy launched into it, accepting a tin cup full of black coffee from Adam. It seemed momentarily out of character but then he decided that he would say nothing about it. Usually the cup was china and it was Hop Sing would have handed it to him. But all that had changed.  The cups were all broken. As was the man who usually served him.

“Yes. He said there were five or six of them, about 14 or 15 years old.”

“Did he recognize any of them? Would like to know who I am suppose to be looking for.” Roy asked.
Adam, sitting on a broken dining room chair, piped up. “They’ll be real easy to find. They’re the ones carrying the marks of my brother’s fists! They’re the ones with his blood on their hands! They’re the ones who delight in tormenting harmless people like Hop Sing!” The raw hot anger in Adam Cartwright was audible.

Roy slowly turned to look at Adam. He took in Hoss as well. “I told you boys before that you need to let the law handle this. You interfere in anyway and I will have to arrest you just to keep your hides intact.  It is my job as sheriff to handle this, not yours. Do I make myself clear?”

It didn’t surprise Roy that neither man answered him. “Can I go up and talk to Joe now, Ben?”

Ben had been lost in thought and had missed the exchange between Roy and his sons. It was Paul Martin on the steps behind him who answered Roy. “He’s awake now but you need to go easy on him. He’s in a lot of pain right now.”

Roy started up the stairs past Doc Martin, then turned to find Hoss and Adam coming behind him.

“You two stay put here,” he ordered and saw the look that passed between the two brothers that said they were coming anyway. He raised his hand and spoke more forcefully. “I told you I would not allow any interference and I meant it. Now, I’m going up here to talk to your brother alone and in private. You two will stay here. Is that understood?”

Adam opened his mouth to speak, but was cut off by the strong words of Doc Martin. "You will stay down here, boys, and I have my own reasons.  I do not want your brother upset any more than he already is.  You two go up there half-cocked and he'll get all riled and upset and start thinking of getting out of that bed--and you know he'll do it too."
"But Doc, we just want to …" Hoss began, trying to put his tangled mess of thoughts into words.

"I know what you want to do, Hoss," Doc Martin said as he took off his glasses and wiped them on the sleeve of his shirt.  Once completed, he put the wire-rimmed spectacles back on his nose and glared at Hoss. "But you are concentrating on the wrong thing here."  He gestured around the room at the shambles that was once a fine home.  "This, all this can be fixed.  But the two men upstairs should be your major concern.  Joe's hands are broken, maybe beyond repair.  Have the two of you thought of that?  No, to avoid it you're concentrating on your anger and your need for revenge."  He looked at Roy and motioned him upstairs.  "The sheriff and I will be questioning your brother.  I suggest you take a few minutes to think over what I've said."  He turned and sprinted up the steps after the sheriff.  He looked down at the two brothers and saw they had both sat down and appeared to be thinking.  Satisfied he had made at least a slight impression, he walked down the hall to the room. He could hear Roy's voice as he approached the door.

"Joe, I don't want to upset you," Roy said in a low soothing tone as he patted the young man's shoulder.  "But I need to find out if you know who did this."

Joe struggled to open his eyes.  The pain was never-ending and he found the only way to prevent groaning was to keep his eyes closed. But he looked over at Hop Sing who sat silently in the makeshift bed, then up into the dark eyes of the sheriff who sat next to him.  "D'you suppose we could do this somewhere else?" Joe asked, inclining his head toward his Chinese friend. A groan escaped his lips as he shifted on the bed. "I think I can make it downstairs…"

"Certainly not!" Doc Martin interrupted firmly as he glared at him.  "You aren't going anywhere young man.”

Joe looked up at the recently arrived doctor, his eyes brimming with anguish.  "But Doc, Hop Sing's just started talking again and I.." He paused and fought a wave of pain. "I don't want to upset him."

Doc Martin nodded and crossed to the opposite side of the bed and sat down next to Joe. "I know, Joseph.  But according to Ben, he doesn't seem to understand English right now anyway, so he shouldn't get upset over what you have to say."  Paul looked over at Roy and mouthed the words "take it easy," before returning his attention to Joe.  "The sheriff is going to ask you some questions, but I'm warning you.  If you start to get upset, or if you start moving around on that bed I'll put a stop to it--clear?"

Joe nodded and took a shallow breath to prepare himself for the interrogation.  His ribs hurt terribly and all he longed to do was wrap his arms around his chest and hold on tight to try and make the pain manageable.  An impossible dream because of the two heavy casts that extended from the tips of his fingers to his elbows.  "I 'm not sure who they were Roy," he said softly.

“When Hop Sing and I got home from town, Hop Sing went in to start making lunch. I was gonna get the wagon unloaded. I heard him in here yelling at someone then I heard a crash. Anyway, I thought that maybe Hop Sing was having some sort of trouble so I went in through the kitchen door. But he wasn't in the kitchen.  When I got around the corner into the dining room, I saw that there were three boys, about Hop Sing’s size holding him down on the floor…..” and the memory of all that had transpired flooded through him like a raging river.

The three boys were startled when they found Joe among them, slinging them bodily away from Hop Sing. They hadn’t thought that anyone was home and hadn’t heard the wagon pull up, so intent were they on the destruction being rendered. But now suddenly, here was Joe, plowing into them.  He lifted one young man by the arm clear off the floor and flung him towards the door. Joe grabbed the other two by the back of their necks, one in either hand, and tried to drag them away from Hop Sing, who still lay prone on the floor.

The first boy had regained his feet and took advantage of the fact that both of Joe’s hands were full and ran full tilt, head lowered and hit Joe full in the stomach. The force knocked Joe back onto the dining room table, taking the wind from his lungs, the white linen tablecloth sliding beneath him. He rolled from the table top, wiping the back of one hand across his chin, and eyeing the three before him a little more warily now. He was carefully sizing them up when a sound upstairs drew his attention. That there were others here was a passing thought but he pushed it from his mind. They were kids, yes, but even young rattlesnakes are deadly.

Just then, the biggest of the three before him, picked up the statue that graced the table behind the sofa and hurled it at Joe. As he ducked he saw one of the others off to his left coming at him and he turned just in time for one of the chairs to come crashing down across his side. While it forced him to the floor, he was able to reach out and grab the leg of his attacker, pulling him off balance and down.

There was another burst of noise upstairs that caught Joe’s attention but before he could even rise to his feet, he felt his attackers overcoming him. He tried to stand but found their combined weight more than he could lift.

Somewhere in the melee, Joe could hear Hop Sing screaming “No! No! Not cut!” and all Joe could think was that one of the boys was trying to hurt his friend. He had to get to him and help him but couldn’t stand. Putting both hands on the floor, he gave an adrenaline-enforced shove upwards, trying to rid himself of the others.

What happened next would remain in Joe’s memory forever. As if time had slowed to a crawl, he watched as a boot heel came down on the back of his left hand, full force. A white-hot lance of pain shot up his arm, across his shoulder and up into his brain. An involuntary scream tore from him and he pulled his hand to his chest.

When he screamed out, the two attackers had backed off, frightened now. There had never been anything in their plans about hurting anyone. Just trash the house. Have a little fun.  Everyone knew the Cartwrights had more money than God.  They could easily replace a few broken pieces of furniture.  But now they had crossed the line and the two that Joe was glaring at were becoming afraid.

As Joe rose shakily to his feet, he kept eye contact with the two boys in front of him now.  One of them he thought he recognized from town, with sandy brown hair and a lanky look to him, his pants legs being a tad too short on him.  The other boy had blonde hair and an almost cherubic look to his face. But the look stopped at his blue eyes.  They were nasty little pig eyes that bore into Joe.  There was fear there, Joe saw, but the fear only made the boy all the meaner looking. He needed to use that fear to his advantage.

“Look, I don’t know what you kids are up to but I can tell you right now, you are in a Hell of a lot of trouble.” Joe tried to still the panic he felt rising and was surprised to hear his own voice sound so calm, menacing, but calm. He wasn’t wearing his gun but that didn’t matter as he couldn’t have handled it anyway. His hand was throbbing painfully. No, he knew that he had to talk sense into these kids somehow. After all they were just kids…

Joe never saw the lamp thrown at his head by the third boy. It hit him a glancing blow but it was enough to  slice into the top of his shoulder and stagger him. As he took a step back, his legs hit the side of his father’s red leather chair and he stumbled again.
Just then he saw two other boys coming down the stairs, laughing, until they saw him.

“You just met some real trouble here, boys. I suggest you…” but Joe never finished.  As if directed by one thought, the five boys swarmed over him. At first, Joe had not wanted to hurt them but their intentions were obvious and Joe threw that thought away with the second punch he took to his jaw.  He felt a solid surface behind him and knew he was then being pressed back onto his father’s desk and reached out for something to use as a weapon against his assailants. The only thing that came to his flailing right hand was the frame that held his mother’s picture. ‘Ma, help me’ came to him as Joe used the frame across the back of a head of red-blonde hair.

Out of the corner of his eye, Joe could see the gun rack and Hop Sing. Completely out of breath, chest heaving, he prayed Hop Sing would grab one of the guns there and open fire. But Hop Sing just stood as if rooted to that spot, his eyes wide with terror. Then Joe saw that one of his attackers was headed towards Hop Sing, a butcher knife in his child-like hand.

“No. You bastard, no!” and from somewhere deep within him came the strength he needed and Joe was able to rid himself of two of his aggressors. In two long strides, he was to his friend and was pushing Hop Sing behind him, protecting as best he could. With his one remaining good hand, he reached out and shoved Hop Sing up the stairs. The kid with the knife made a lunge at Joe, the knife scraping his side and Joe went to knock the knife away with his left hand. The motion was hot agony and brought a scream from Joe. But it also knocked the knife away. This kid, though, was a brawler and he finished his aborted lunge with a body block that pushed both Joe and Hop Sing onto the steps. Scrambling to his feet, Joe was able to allow Hop Sing those precious split seconds to get to the top of the stairs. But there, Hop Sing froze, seeing the damage done to the main room and the dining room. That was all the boys needed.

Continuing to push the stunned Hop Sing behind him, Joe was backing up slowly down the hall, fighting the boys every step of the way. It seemed that they were coming from every direction at him and he knew of only one way out. Through them. There was a distant thought in the back of his mind of the revolver kept in the sideboard in the hall but how could he use it? His left hand and now his whole left side was a useless mass of pain. Joe kept using his right hand to give out as much punishment as he could but knew it was a matter of time… Why wasn’t Hop Sing helping him?

“Johnny, no, quit!” came a cry off to his right when Joe had been shoved to the wall and his knees buckled under him. He slid down the wall, leaving a bloody trail as he did. There was a moment’s hesitation and Joe was determined to take advantage of it. He reached out with one long leg and kicked at the nearest boy. That seemed to turn the tide and as it were, the battle started to go in Joe’s direction for the first time. The blonde haired angel face was sent spinning crazily towards the steps as Joe kicked again. But the one who had held the knife was another matter. As Joe lashed out at him, they grappled and rolled down the stairs and onto the landing. Their combined weight broke the banister. Joe hit flat on his back, a piece of the railing beneath him. Blackness rushed up to engulf him as he tried to rise to Hop Sing’s plea for help.

When he came back to his senses, Joe, twisting painfully, saw that the boys had the cook trapped over by the bookcase in his father’s study. He could hear Hop Sing’s voice rising in terror and the cruel laughter of the boys. Joe got to his feet but his whole body seized up in pain. His shoulder wound was bleeding profusely and now a cut had opened on his cheek. The boys stopped laughing when they saw him get to his feet.

“He just don’t know when to stay down, does he?” said the boy Joe took to be the ringleader, the one who had held the butcher knife. Joe sized him up and didn’t like what he saw.  Although the boy was still young, he was easily Joe’s size or a bit bigger, outweighing Joe by a good ten pounds. Joe didn’t like the odds one bit.

“Get him!”  and they left Hop Sing and came at Joe.  Once again, he felt himself overwhelmed and pummeled by what felt like a hundred fists. This time though when Joe went down, he stayed down, feeling the dirt and wood chips beneath him and seeing the team of horses just a few feet away. His last conscious thought was that somehow he had to help Hop Sing.

Roy Coffee had listened in stunned silence. In all his years in law enforcement, he had never been so angry. He had dealt with murderers, thieves, rapists and common hoodlums but if the story he had just heard from Joe Cartwright were true, he was now dealing in an all new breed of criminal: young kids bent on just destroying things.

“You didn’t recognize any of them? Maybe seen ‘em around town sometime?” Roy asked softly.

With his strength giving out quickly now, Joe couldn’t even shake his head ‘no’. He was too tired to even keep his eyes open and let them closed. As he drifted off into the comforting darkness, he felt Doc Martin beside him, touching his face, pulling the quilt around his shoulders.

“Kids, Roy, kids did this,” the doctor whispered still in disbelief.

“And if I don’t find them first, I’m afraid of what….” but by then, Joe had let himself fall asleep.

Although they had thought that he was truly sleeping, Hop Sing had listened to everything going on around him.  He couldn’t comprehend the words, even though a part of his mind knew that he should be able to make out some of it. He still clutched his braid tightly in his hand, afraid that someone would take it from him should he relinquish the hold. How could he explain to his ancestors should he go to meet them without it?  They would think that he had turned his back on his culture, his history, his whole way of life.  No, he must keep hold of his que and figure a way to make the others understand him.
Now the room was growing dark and a breeze was wafting through the open window. The breeze, Hop Sing thought. It carried evil spirits into the room. He had to close the window before one could sneak in and take its own brand of vengeance.  Hop Sing arose, painfully aware of every bruise on his small frame, and walked to the window, meaning to close it. Before he could reach the sash, he heard the young man on the bed moan in his sleep and turned back to him.

Joseph. That was his name…, Little Joe was what Hop Sing called him. Tumbling through his mind then came memories of the past times spent with him: a little boy arguing with him about going to school, a little boy not wanting to eat what was placed in front of him, a boy laughing and smiling as they chased chickens for Sunday dinner, a young man getting ready for his first date with a girl. These were happy memories that came flooding back to him in a single heartbeat. But the next heart beat brought those of a darker variety: the very little boy who thought he had no one else to turn to when his mother died, the lad who had hovered near death with pneumonia, the young man who continually fought with his family to assert his manhood, the man who had tried to save Hop Sing’s life by sacrificing his own.

Softly, he padded over to the bed and took careful stock of what he saw. Yes, Little Joe was his name. The unruly curls that careened hap-hazardly down his forehead and lay tangled on the pillow seemed to call to Hop Sing and beg to be righted. With a shaky hand, Hop Sing allowed the briefest of touches to those locks, afraid that he would awaken Little Joe and cause more pain. When Joe’s eyes popped open, Hop Sing nearly jumped away, scared.

Joe saw the confusion on his friend’s face. He couldn’t muster the strength needed to speak any louder so, in a hoarse whisper, he asked Hop Sing for a drink of water.  Hop Sing simply stood looking at him until Joe repeated his request in Chinese. With a slight bow, Hop Sing looked for a glass and the pitcher of water that would normally have been close at hand.  He saw neither but there was a canteen there and when he picked it up, felt that there was water in it. He pulled the stopper and gave a careful sniff.  Yes, the water had a fresh smell to it. He held it out to Joe, a question in his eyes.

When he tried to sit up, the motion made Joe’s head swim. His head was pounding, it hurt so bad. Instinctively, he went to put his hand to his forehead to stop the swirling motion. But his arms were so heavy they wouldn’t budge from the bed. Joe looked down to where they rested and saw the plaster casts that held his hands. He tried to move just a finger but found that was impossible as well. Panic was rising in his chest and he struggled to sit up, half-afraid of what else he would find. Watching his friend try to sit up, Hop Sing went to him to try and help. But just as he touched the young man, the older silver haired man entered the room.

As Ben had opened the door, all he had seen was Hop Sing pulling on Joe and, to him, it appeared that Hop Sing for whatever reason fathomable, was trying to get Joe out of bed. Roughly, Ben shoved the small Cantonese back and away from his son, pushing with one mighty hand for all he was worth, trying to protect his son. So taken off guard was he that Hop Sing found himself on the floor across the room, dazed and bewildered. And frightened.  He struggled to his feet and while the silver head was turned towards Little Joe, Hop Sing ran for the door.

Once out into the hallway, instinct took over and Hop Sing headed for the stairs at a dead run, terrified. Nothing made sense any more. And he had to get away from the confusion. As he ran down the stairs, escape was all he could think of. As he rounded the doorway into the kitchen, once his sole domain, he ran smack into the biggest chest in Nevada.

Hoss had been unprepared for being run over by Hop Sing and had grabbed a hold of the diminutive houseboy just to keep him from falling.  But Hop Sing, in his state of confusion, thought that Hoss was trying to do him more harm and flailed away at him with his fists. The fists bounced harmlessly off of Hoss’s chest, but did major damage to the big man’s soul. Totally aghast at what was happening, Hoss turned Hop Sing loose and stepped back.  That was far enough for Hop Sing to see the butcher knife on the chopping block and he grabbed it to use as a weapon. Now brandishing the twelve-inch blade before him, he forced Hoss to one side and backed towards the kitchen door, readying to make his escape. He kept eye contact with Hoss and saw that there was a great deal of fear in the blue eyes.  He fumbled behind him for the doorknob.

“Now then, my esteemed friend, what has brought you to do this?” came the gentling words that Hop Sing understood, spoken in Cantonese. There at the dining room entrance stood Le Chan, Virginia City’s most respected Oriental physician. Chan spoke softly and in very measured tone and words, barely dipping his head in greeting. He had been told by Doctor Martin and then again by Ben Cartwright about the condition of his friend Hop Sing but had chosen to not believe until he saw for himself. Now he had seen the wild panic and fear for himself.

Hop Sing did not answer. Nor did he move.

“These people are your friends, as am I.  They mean you no harm or disrespect yet you would do so to them?  When they need you the most?  I am surprised at you Hop Sing.  How often have you come to me and sung the praises of the man on whom you now hold a knife?  And you have often spoken with pride of the one who lays upstairs, needing your care now more than ever.  You would leave him like this?  And what of the father? You owe him your life more times than you can count and this is how you would repay those debts?  The one called Adam has tried to help you though these dark waters and has brought me here to speak with you. This is how you would navigate these waters, with fear, uncertainty and dread?  I am surprised at you.” As he spoke, Le Chan had moved slowly and cautiously to stand not an arm’s length away from Hop Sing. When he finished, he extended his hand, palm up, his eyes asking for the knife.

Here, Hop Sing thought, here was understanding. Looking at the knife in his hand as though it were a foreign object, he wondered how it got there. And the revered elder who stood before him and spoke, Hop Sing knew that he was familiar by the words he spoke. The elder had spoken of others that Hop Sing tried to sort out in his clouded mind but was unable to make sense of it. Most of all, there was the big man who stood to one side, blue eyes blurred with tears as he watched.

Hop Sing shook his head as if to clear the cloudy mist threatening to engulf his sanity. He looked again at the knife in his hand. Around the same hand was wrapped his braid and he closed his other hand over it, dropping the knife to the floor. Le Chan reached out and took Hop Sing’s arm, pulling his attention back.

“You must rest now. Come,” the physician stated flatly and began to pull Hop Sing from the kitchen. Timidly, Hop Sing followed the elder through the main rooms, up the steps and back into the room he had fled. At that doorway, he balked for he could see the man who had pushed him away so violently. “You must rest here, Hop Sing.  I will see that no harm comes to you.” Still regarding the other man suspiciously, Hop Sing entered the room and moved to the bed the elder indicated.

As he laid down and the elder began to cover him with a quilt, Hop Sing looked over at the sleeping form on the other bed and said one word: “Joe?”
“He rests as well,” the elder whispered softly. “Now you do so. We will talk when you awaken.” And Hop Sing let sleep take him. There was no confusion in sleep.

As Ben Cartwright stood watching Le Chan and Hop Sing, his heart felt heavy. To see Hop Sing in such a state was difficult to say the least.  Hop Sing had always been there to help any time one of them needed it. Now when he needed help, there seemed no way that Ben could give it to him. He had been truly startled when he thought Hop Sing was trying to hurt Joe but then realized that that was one thing he would never have done. Even when Joe was a small child and being most difficult, he had never seen Hop Sing even raise a hand to smack cookie-stealing fingers. Ben knew that the relationship Joe and Hop Sing had developed over the years was a strong one.  They would need that strength from one another to heal.

“Le Chan.” Ben started cautiously, once he saw that Hop Sing was asleep. The oriental physician turned to him and bowed slightly.” I need to ask Hop Sing..” but the other man held up his hand for silence.

“No, you will only hurt him more by your questions right now.  He must rest as your son rests, in order to heal. All wounds heal, Mr. Cartwright. Some just faster than others. Hop Sing must rest. Then we will slowly bring him back to this world.”


Chapter Two: Where is the line separating justice and revenge?

Roy Coffee had been busy, although you couldn’t have told it by watching him. That afternoon after he had come back to Virginia City following his visit to the Ponderosa, he simply sat at his desk in his office, the outside door open.  He had watched town life while he thought of what he had to do and how to go about doing it.  When he had listened to Joe Cartwright tell what had happened and the hazy descriptions the boy had given him, Roy knew that in order to get justice handled properly, he had to be sure of his facts.  The only charges that he could come up with right then was assault and battery and destruction of private property. The sentences that went with those charges weren’t going to come close to matching the fury the Cartwrights were feeling.

The second afternoon found Roy Coffee strolling around town, carefully watching for teenage boys of the sort that Joe had described.  Doc Martin had said that they would have physical signs of a fight on them, so he watched for that as well. Unfortunately, he saw nothing.

He went in search of the schoolteacher, Miss Williams.

“Why, Sheriff Coffee. This is a pleasant surprise. Let me guess, you want school called back into session early from summer vacation because some of the children have been misbehaving,” Miss Williams said lightly as the sheriff settled onto the settee in the parlor of her rooming house.  She obviously hadn’t heard what the rumor and gossip mills had been turning out or she wouldn’t have taken such a carefree attitude.

“Well, I wouldn’t call beating a man nigh onto death, scaring another clean out of his wits and destroying a beautiful home ‘misbehaving’. I am hoping that you could help me out.” Then he had told her about what he had seen and heard at the Ponderosa. When he finished, she was pale.

“I really can’t say for sure, Sheriff. I only had two boys of that age in school last semester and they were from the best of families here in Virginia City. I am sure that Morgan and Jeremy wouldn’t be caught up in something as horrible as you described.”

“All the same I think I should go and talk with these boys. What’s their last names?”

“Morgan and Jeremy Taylor, you know, Judge Taylor’s sons.”

The big house on Main Street was a commanding sight to all who passed by. Judge Anthony Taylor had built the home on what everyone suspected was bribes but no one could ever prove it.  He said it came from wise investments. Most of the people in Storey County thought that he did a good job on the bench, handing out fair judgement. Most of the time. When Virginia City had taken off in size a while back, the governor had insisted that Anthony Taylor take up residence there, instead of being the circuit riding judge as he had been for years. As such, he had married a widow woman by the name of Claire and taken her two sons to raise as his own. The Judge, while a good man on the bench, had proven to be poor father material.  His two adopted sons could and did cause minor problems around town. Minor ones, Roy thought. Nothing bad enough to even bring him into the picture. But they might know something so Roy was there that afternoon, talking with the judge in his home office.

After Roy had briefly described what had happened at the Ponderosa, leaving out small details on purpose, the judge harrumphed once and leaned back into his chair.
“And what do you want out of me?  Sounds like you don’t need an arrest warrant yet. So what do you want?”

“Well, I wanted to talk to your boys,” Roy started.

Before he could even finish his thought, the judge was on his feet and leaning over his desktop, roaring at the sheriff. “My sons would have nothing to do with the riff raff you described! Don’t tell me that you think my sons would take part in something like that, now do you?”

Roy was trying to stay calm but the more he did, the louder the judge was getting. “I just want to talk with your boys is all, judge.”

Glaring at the lawman, the judge raised his voice into a full-blown shout for the maid. When she appeared timidly, he asked her to find his sons and bring them to him.

While they waited, Roy said nothing.  The judge, on the other hand, made plenty of comments. He was sure that his boys had nothing to do with this.  It was something cooked up by the Cartwrights. Everyone knew that there was no love lost between Ben Cartwright and himself and this was just something to keep the judge from getting the nod for another term on the Bench following the upcoming election,

After what seemed an eternity to Roy, the two boys appeared. He looked them over closely, trying to match their appearance with the sketchy information Joe had given him. All he saw was that both boys had some bruises on their arms and the oldest one, Morgan, had some scratches on his neck. When Roy asked about the scratches and bruises, Jeremy squirmed a bit before saying that he and his brother had gotten into an argument the day before.  The argument had ended with both boys taking swings at the other.  Roy chuckled softly. He knew two other brothers who did the same thing upon occasion, Joe and Adam Cartwright to be exact. But he sobered quickly when he thought of the two casts on Joe’s hands now and the anger in Adam’s eyes.

“Do either of you know a boy that goes by the name of Johnny? Would be about your age, maybe a little bigger than you two. Know him?” and both young boys answered “no” a little too quickly for Roy’s likes.  He would watch these two. If they were part of it, and Roy prayed they weren’t, it would be a huge hurtle to get them to trial…

“I wouldn’t normally suggest this, Ben, but I think I have to in this case. You need to take Joe and Hop Sing out of here.  My suggestion is that you take them into the International House, get a suite of rooms and stay there with them until all of this is over.  You yourself are not getting any rest. Let Adam and Hoss take care of the problems here. You concentrate on Joe and Hop Sing only.” And with each “you”, Roy Coffee thrust his finger at Ben’s chest.

Ben couldn’t help but look around himself at the remains of his once comfortable living room, now still in a shambles, despite Hoss and Adam’s attempts to right the damage. He had spent most of the last days upstairs with Joseph, partly to care for his son but also to avoid seeing what he saw now.  Yes, it was only material possessions that could be replaced but they were possessions that he had taken a lifetime to acquire and meant much more than just “things” to him and to his family as well.  Those were not to be replaced so easily. The memories evoked every time he walked through the room now were painful ones. He was having trouble thinking of anything other than those memories.

The sheriff watched him and saw Ben’s eyes wander about the room, noting that those eyes were so very sorrowful.

“But,” Ben started but Paul Martin butted in, hand raised characteristically to stop him.

“I think Roy has got a good suggestion there, Ben. I’ll even make it doctor’s orders for you, if that is what it takes. I can see to Joe and Hop Sing better in town, on a more regular basis.” And you too, old friend, was Paul’s unspoken continuation.

Looking at the wide planking of the floor, not seeing the many years’ worth of boot-heel scrapings but the minute trace of blood in the tiny cracks, Ben could find no voice to protest. After a long moment, he finally brought his eyes back to his two friends and saw their expressions of concern. He had long thought of himself as a man who gave help. Now, he was just coming to the realization that he needed help as well. And the two men who stood there with him were wanting to help him.

With a deep sigh of resignation, Ben simply nodded his head.

"No, I want to stay home, Pa!" Joe protested but weakly. His father had just told him that they would be moving to Virginia City for a time to allow repairs to be made to the house without disturbing him. He personally thought that it would be more disturbing to be moved into the public eye. Ever mindful of his appearance, he knew the bruises on his face were still evident and with his arms in heavy plaster confinement, he was unable to help himself. And his knee was still swollen enough that walking was painful and awkward. How his father could think that would benefit him was beyond Joe's comprehension.

"We need to do it this way, Joseph. I would appreciate it if you would not argue with me about it." Ben was doing his best to be stern concerning this uncertain move he felt was being forced on him as well. "Besides, Roy says he needs you to identify the boys who did this."

"Fine, bring them on out and let me have a look at 'em!" Joe countered.

"That would mean all the boys in town, son. No, I think what he wants is for you to pick them off the street."

"Then get a room with a view of the street then, 'cause I ain't going out on the street looking like this!" Joe let slip and Ben instantly recognized the real reason behind his son's reluctance, that ugly trait his youngest possessed in abundance: vanity. Maybe it was justified, but in this case Ben would let any admonition go unspoken.

"Good, then we're going," Ben announced and when his father got up to leave the room, Joe knew he had been outmaneuvered.  Again.

The argument had been a quick and hot one between Ben Cartwright and his eldest son as well. Looking back on it, Ben was surprised. Adam had taken his youngest brother's side without knowing it and that was most uncharacteristic of him.

"Let Hoss go into town and get the rooms. I'll help you with Joe and Hop Sing. We can time it to get to town right at dusk. Joe can go in the back way and be in the room without anyone in town knowing he's there." Adam had argued but Ben had wanted to go earlier than the proposed evening.

"Too late, Pa. I've already sent Hoss to get the rooms arranged. He should be back in a while."

Ben narrowed his eyes and pulled his brows into their familiar flat line when facing a confrontation. "All right then, if you have this figured out so well, you go help Joseph get dressed. I'll see to getting things packed up."

And Adam wasn't really sure if he had gotten the short end of the stick or not.

"Feel like a damn baby, Adam. Can't do anything for myself," Joe moaned between clenched teeth and labored breathing.  He had thought he was stronger than that but just sitting up and getting his pants on had taken its toll. Now, trying with Adam's help to get a shirt on was proving to be more than what he thought he could possibly handle.

"Why don't you quit using your energy to fight me and just let me do it for you, Joe." Adam explained, trying to pull a sleeve over one casted arm, but the cast was almost too large to allow passage. "Remember? Like when you were a little thing and Pa would send me in to make sure you were dressed for church? Remember those days? I sure do." Although Adam was trying to think of it just that way, he kept seeing reality before him: the bruises that covered his brother's slight form, the casts on both arms, the bulky bandages across the one shoulder, the ribs bound tight against movement, the one knee swollen nearly double. But most of all, the strain showing through on his brother's battered face.

"Face it, Adam, that sleeve just ain't going over that cast. Tell Pa I ain't going." But Joe was not in the least bit dejected by the idea.

An index finger raised in quick thought, Adam said "Wait right here, I have an idea." Quickly rising to his feet in front of his brother, Adam left the room.

Joe flopped back on the bed, wincing with the pain, muttering "Just where did he think I was going?"

Adam was back almost as quickly as he had left, one of his own good shirts in his hands. "Let's try this one," he suggested and pulled Joe back carefully into a seated position on the bed. This time the sleeve went over the cast easily but the cuffs hung well down over his fingertips. Once Adam had it buttoned up the front, he turned the sleeves up just a bit, mindful of the baleful looks Joe was giving him. When he was finished with the sleeves, he gave the collar a playful adjustment. "Just to give you the idea of what it will feel like when you finally grow up," he teased.

"I am grown. I just quit before you did."

"Yes, my brother, and we both quit before Hoss did!" and although it physically hurt Joe, he shared the old joke with Adam concerning their middle brother's legendary size.

Adam snagged a boot and was trying to help Joe on with it when Joe suddenly fell back onto the bed laughing, holding onto his sides.

"What is so funny? You could be helping just a little here," Adam fussed and reached up, grabbed a handful of shirt and pulled Joe back into a seated position.

"Can you imagine what it would have been like if you and I had grown to be Hoss' size as well?" and Joe laughed again, gasping through the pain radiating down his side it caused but unable to help himself.

The picture that popped into Adam's head was of the three of them blown to Hoss' proportions and was as equally ludicrous as the one in Joe's mind.  He gave up trying to get Joe's boot on and laughed as well.  He sat on the side of the bed with Joe. "Well one thing is for sure. Pa would be a poor man today trying to feed three us who eat like Hoss does," Adam pointed out and that set Joe off into laughter again.

Joe had to lay back down to control the discomfort the laughing caused. "Naw, Adam. 'Nother thing. You all certainly would have never nicknamed me Little Joe!"

Adam had to laughingly agree. For just those few moments it felt good to laugh with Joe but then he watched as Joe grabbed at his side, the pain he was feeling was evident on his face. The mirth both of them had just expressed was gone equally as fast for both of them.

Joe lay on the bed, struggling to control the pain, breathing heavily like a horse just run a great distance. "Damn!" he softly cursed, "Can't… even… laugh."

Uncertainty racing through him, Adam reached out and touched Joe's shuddering shoulder. But there was no way he could even comfort Joe and it angered Adam. More than the destruction of his home and possessions. More than the physical beating he saw that his little brother had taken. More than the abuse that closed Hop Sing to reality. More than any of that, Adam wanted revenge for what he had just witnessed: the silencing of Joe's laughter.

The darkness of night shrouded the streets of Virginia City. In the back alley behind the International House, Hoss and Adam Cartwright were helping their brother out of the surrey that had brought the three of them into town. Throughout most of the slow journey, Joe had sat, resting heavily against the protective side of his brother Adam as Hoss drove, trying to miss the ruts and potholes in the road. Now the journey was at an end and the most daunting of tasks still lay before Joe: climbing the stairs to the third floor. Back at the ranch, Joe had convinced his father to let him ride with his brothers while Ben and Hop Sing went into town in the buckboard, swearing he could handle sitting up that long. Now, the brothers all knew differently. Joe had nearly fallen out of the surrey into Hoss' arms. For a long moment, Hoss had supported Joe, feeling him tremble beneath his hands. Finally, Joe had pushed back from the massive chest and onto his own feet.

The breath he drew in was shaky but Joe still whispered "I'm all right. I can make it on my own, Hoss."

Reluctantly, afraid Joe would fall otherwise, Hoss turned him loose. "Sure, Shortshanks, sure," he murmured and saw a tight small smile come to his brother's face.

"You lead the way, Hoss.  Joe and I will be right behind you," Adam directed, handing Hoss the position he would have normally taken. He knew that with Hoss' bulk before them, Joe would be all but hidden between them, and there was nothing more Adam wanted right then than to help his youngest brother hide from the world.

"We got three sets of stairs to climb, Joe. You know I can just as easily carry you up," Hoss offered but Joe's gesture left no doubt as to how he wanted it done.

"I will not be carried in like a baby, Hoss. Now either get a move on or get out of the way," Joe hissed, his words belying his real physical condition. He doubted whether he could really do it or not but he wasn't about to let anyone see the weakness he felt.

By the time Joe hit the second landing, he could feel his knee throbbing and the pain from his ribs was making him breathe in short gasps. Unable to grasp the handrail, he sagged against the wall instead to catch his breath.  He closed his eyes, willing the pain, and the weakness it brought, away. Distantly, he heard Adam hiss for Hoss to stop and immediately felt hands supporting him. Using will power alone, he opened his eyes and struggled to stand on his own. The fierce look of determination in his eyes would have warded other men away but Adam and Hoss were not 'other men'.
"Why couldn't you have gotten a room on the second floor, Hoss?" he quipped, deciding that humor was going to let him have his way easier than fighting with these two.

"'Cause I'se feelin' real mean and cantankerous, little brother. Now you gonna let me help you?"

"Nope, not with you feeling that way. Just lead on Hoss, you know where you left the room."

Not in the least bit eager to do as Joe requested, Hoss saw Adam's head jerk on up the stairs in an unspoken command to continue. Confident that Adam would sing out loud and clear should the need arise, Hoss turned and headed up the steps, hearing his brothers behind him.

At the third landing, Hoss eased the door open to the hallway and looked down it. Adam had been quite blunt earlier in the evening when they had spoken of being seen in public. Hoss had at first thought that Adam was just joking with him about going in the back way.  To Hoss, it had seemed like they were sneaking around and it seemed silly to him. Then Adam, glowering darkly, had explained. "Joe knows how bad he's messed up right now Hoss and that bothers him a whole lot.  Hell, you and I both know he turns more heads than us 'cause he's so damn good looking. But right now, well, he's not so good looking and he knows it.  So we're just gonna let him hide for a while longer. Let the bruises fade, let the black eye heal and Joe will be back to his old devilish self. If we don't do this for him, he loses a lot of what makes him Joe. I personally don't want to see that happen. So, little buddy," Adam had let his hand come to rest on Hoss' shoulder and used the epithet that he normally reserved for Joe as emphasis, "We are gonna do it this way. Understand?" And Hoss had understood. Now though, he wasn't so sure his younger brother was going to make it the way the older brother wanted it.

There was no one in the hall but Hoss waited a few moments so Joe could catch his breath before moving into the strong light. He looked over his shoulder into Joe's face.

"Wait a minute, Joe," he cautioned and tugged the brim on Joe's hat down just a touch more, pulling his brother's features into more shadows than before. "That better?" and got one of Joe's lopsided grins in response.

Once again, in single file, they started down the hall, Hoss leading and sheltering, Adam following and with one hand extended, ready to support the faltering steps of the youngest Cartwright between them. They were almost to the juncture of the grand staircase when an elegant couple in evening clothes almost ran them down. Hoss stopped abruptly and felt Joe nudge into his back with a low, almost animal-like groan of pain.

When Hoss had stopped, Joe had been more intent on looking at the floor and concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. Hitting his brother's solid back nearly knocked him down and he staggered back a half step. He immediately felt Adam's hand, fingers spread wide, against his back between his shoulder blades and heard Adam whispered "Just lean back a little, Joe. I've got you." Keeping his head down and his face in shadow, Joe did as Adam directed and felt Adam's other hand holding him up, supporting the arm closest to the wall.

To the passing couple, there seemed nothing out of the ordinary.

Once they were passed, Adam felt Joe sag against him. All pretense of strength was now gone.

"Hoss, help me with him." Adam whispered but it was needless for Hoss was already turning back, reaching for Joe. Once he had Joe firmly cradled in his arms, head tucked into his shoulder, Hoss moved down to the end of the hall, Adam slightly ahead now.

Ben had heard the rustling at the door that sounded like a key trying to be hurriedly fit into the lock. Crossing the floor quickly, he yanked to door open and was appalled to see Hoss carrying Joe.  Quickly he stepped back into the room and allowed Hoss in. He could hear Joe's labored breathing and it frightened him.

"Adam," he started to tell him to go and get the doctor but Adam's hand to him stayed his command.

"Joe just kind of over did it a bit, Pa. You know how bullheaded he can be.  It just caught up to him is all.  He's okay."

Feeling doubtful about that last statement, Ben trailed Hoss into the bedroom part of the suite of rooms.

Watching from both sides of the doorway, Adam and Hoss watched their father tend to their brother, unbuttoning and gently removing his shirt, speaking softly to him all the while, Joe moving but slightly, totally spent.  While Adam had a clear view of the scene, Hoss could see what was going on by watching the reflection in the mirror.

"What do we do now, Adam?" Hoss asked but didn't look at him, intent on watching his father.

"We go back to the ranch and try to make it a safe place again," was Adam's soft reply, crossing his arms over his chest, and leaning back on the doorjamb, unwilling as well to look anywhere other than at the slight form dwarfed now by the huge bed.

"Safe for who? As long as those kids are still out there…" and Hoss let the thought drift away from him. "You know what I was thinking coming down the hall carrying Joe? He said it was kids that done this but he ain't that much bigger than a kid hisself.  I know he might be stronger than a kid but bigger? No, not much bigger. That’s what done him in, Adam, him and Hop Sing both. They were out numbered."

"No, Hoss. Wasn't Joe's size. Or the fact they were out numbered. It was upbringing. Pa always taught us not to pick on littler kids while we were growing up and we always took that to mean younger kids. Unless Joe was pushed to the absolute limits, he wouldn't have raised a hand to hurt someone he thought was younger than him. Same as you and I would have done."

Hoss considered Adam's words for a moment then reaching out, grabbed Adam's arm and attention. With a nod of his head he indicated the scene before them: their father so totally absorbed into Joe's care that nothing else existed for him, their brother's body a mass of bruises, his hands useless to him, and their cook, sitting off to one side, a vacant stare to his face.

"You still feel the same way?" Hoss asked.

"I can't say that I do. Not any more."

There was a slight sound that reached Hop Sing in the small hours of the morning. Rising and sliding his feet into his soft-soled slippers, his sharp ears followed the sound from across the parlor where he had slept fitfully. Hop Sing felt the coldness of the early morning air through his coarse cotton jacket and loose trousers and he wished for the comforts of a fire. Like the one at home, came the peculiar thought to him. Home? Where was home? He considered the idea, feeling that where he was wasn't home but had lost the concept of just where home was. The small sound came to him again and he hurried across the ornate carpets and into the large bedroom.

The temperature drop during the night had awoken Joe as well. As much as he relished the cooler weather, he had always disdained sleeping cold. So when he awoke to the chill, he reached for the quilt he knew he had seen at the foot of the bed earlier in the evening. But with just the barest tips of both sets of fingers showing from their white casings, getting his hands to do anything was impossible. He tried to grasp the quilt between the two casts but it was awkward and the quilt felt much heavier than it looked. Joe had finally managed to get it close enough to him but then getting it opened out to cover himself was another matter. He was still struggling with it when he realized Hop Sing was in the room with him.

Instinct took over in Hop Sing and with his voice hoarse from self imposed silence, he told the young man he knew as Little Joe that he would do it. To leave it alone and let him do it.

Grateful that help had come, Joe leaned back into the pile of pillows and in the language he had grown up sharing with Hop Sing, gave him his thanks.

Once the quilt was spread and warming him, Joe stopped Hop Sing from leaving. Something that no one in the family had had the courage to bring up, Joe thought he knew already. There was something terribly wrong with Hop Sing. Throughout the whole ordeal so far, he would have usually seen Hop Sing hovering in the near background, with just as anxious a face as his father's. Or someone in the family would have been calling for Hop Sing to bring this or get that. This time, however, he had seen nor heard none of that. What he had witnessed early on was that when he spoke in Chinese to Hop Sing, he seemed to listen. To come back to where they both were. When he or anyone else spoke English, a glazed look came to Hop Sing's features and it was like dealing with a ghost.

"What do you remember, Hop Sing?" Joe asked, searching for the right words to convey his true meaning in the shifting language of Chinese. Long ago, Hop Sing had admonished him that certain sounds said at different pitches and intonations gave different meanings to the listeners. That was why Hop Sing had insisted that Joe learn proper Chinese, not the Cantonese that was actually native to Hop Sing. Joe had liken it to learning English by listening to an Irishman: same language, same words just different.

At the foot of the bed, one hand still resting on the quilt there, Hop Sing paused. It was such a simple question. But through the sifting haze of fear, the answer could not break through clearly.

"What do I remember?" and he let his mind fall back to less complicated times. He turned to face Joe and sat on the foot of the bed, his fingers spreading the fabric before them. He told of how he had come to America at just 15 years old, intent on making his fortune in the newly found gold fields of California. Once he had his fortune made, he would return to Canton for his promised bride. There he would be much respected as a man of the world and he and his wife would raise many happy and strong sons to carry on his family traditions. But those had turned into just empty dreams once he had hit the gravel and cold streams of the California foothills.  The work was hard and grueling but he had felt that no one earned a fortune easily so he persisted. What he had not counted on was the way the white miners felt about others like him. After one particular small strike, Hop Sing had found his paper to the claim was declared worthless and he was ruthlessly pushed from the land. The next time it was the same all over again and Hop Sing began to see the pattern of the white devils. Let he or one of his "yellow" brethren start showing a claim had promise and a means was found to take it. Sickened by it all, Hop Sing left the California gold fields and headed East, hoping to find work. He was just sixteen years old and spoke two words of English: yes and maybe.

Joe had listened in fascination, trying to understand at first every word then gave in and simply sought out and grasped the ideas. In all his life, he had never once heard Hop Sing talk about his life before he came to the Ponderosa to live and work. It was as if Hop Sing had always been there and had never had another life. Joe knew different now. He had heard the not just the words but the feeling of loss Hop Sing had experienced. Loss of family, loss of home, a way of life, a language and culture. And loss of a dream.

"What about your promised bride? That's what you called her, wasn't it?" Joe asked when Hop Sing had fallen silent again.

A distinct look of pain dashed across Hop Sing's round face, awash in the waning moonlight. "When I did not return when I said I would, they feared I was lost. Dead. So they allowed her to marry another even though she had been pledged to me when we were both very young children.  I understand that she has been very happy with her new husband for many years. She has given him many sons and he is also happy with her."

"It didn't work out very well for you, did it? I mean coming to America and all," Joe asked.but once again saw the veil of confusion drop before his friend's face, clouding sight. Then just as rapidly, he saw the blank stare return. Hop Sing rose from where he had sat and started to leave the room.

"Hop Sing, thank you." Joe called in English to his retreating back but saw no sign his friend had even heard him. Then Joe said it again, that time in Chinese, and saw the shoulders slump and the head shaking back and forth in tiny little 'no's'.

When Joe awoke again that morning it was to the sound of voices and smells of bacon and coffee. He could hear his father out in the parlor area talking with someone. Throwing back the quilts, he thought to simply crawl out of bed and go find the source of the food and the talk since it obviously wasn't headed his way at the moment. But seeing how he was clad only in his nightshirt and he couldn't recognize the other voice, he was rethinking his strategy. Getting his nightshirt off wasn't going to be a problem but replacing it was. He laid back onto the bed, letting his thinking catch up with reality.

He was still lying there, contemplating the ornate ceiling above him when his father stepped into the room with Paul Martin.  He looked up into his father's concerned eyes just as his father quickly questioned whether he was all right or not. And just what did he think he was doing?

"Gonna get out of bed for a while, Pa. You know, get dressed, maybe have some coffee, a little breakfast, maybe read the newspaper if they got a copy of the Territorial Enterprise," Joe explained then closed his eyes as Paul Martin began probing his side.

"That hurt?" the doctor queried and it was all Joe could do to keep from groaning it hurt so bad.

"I'm fine," Joe claimed but it was through clenched teeth.

"How about your knee?" and the doctor placed a gentler hand there. It was enough to make Joe want to yank it away but he gave his standard response of "fine" and prayed the doctor would be done soon. But the doctor continued to his shoulder, his hands and finally to the swollen cheekbone that heralded the black eye. Each time the response Joe gave was by rote: "fine."

"Well, you are in no worse shape than when you left the ranch yesterday. From what your father tells me though, I would think that you would have second thoughts about getting out of bed this morning.  You know when I suggested this, young man, I more envisioned your making the trip in the back of a buckboard, laying down, preferably on something soft with enough pillows around you to keep you from bouncing into anything. But you didn't do it that way, now did you?"

Joe gave Doc Martin his best sheepish look but then decided it was probably wasted. With the doctor, his best weapon was usually silence, and he pulled it out even as he tried to sit up on the side of the bed. Doc Martin shook his head and gently pushed Joe back onto the bed.

"Now, of those thing you were listing off to your father about getting up, how many could you do on your own, with no help from anyone else?"

Joe saw the battle lines already being drawn. "Well I can certainly get out of bed by myself and…." Thinking back quickly to his list, he realized that there was only one other thing he could do without someone else helping him as long as his hands were in the hated casts. "and read the newspaper." Realizing his dependency on others, Joe's fight lost a little steam. "How long do these have to stay on for?" Joe asked quietly, his green eyes now having lost a good deal of their fire as well.

This was the part Paul Martin had dreaded most but he knew the young man before him had a great deal of personal courage and stamina that others his age did not. "A good month to six weeks. Then we'll take them off and see what we have."

"Can I at least get some fingers going here?" Joe asked, his voice just short of pleading.

"Absolutely not!" came the doctor's swift reply. "Let me explain what we are dealing with here, Joe." With that Paul reached out a grabbed Ben's right hand and held it between he and Joe. Ben watched helplessly as Paul pointed to three places just below the first set of knuckles on the back of his own hand and then finally just where the wrist joined with the bones coming from the little finger. "Those four places on your right hand are broken, Joe. The breaks are pretty clean from what I could feel as I set them. If you let the hand rest until those bones are done fully mending, you won't have any long term problems."

"What about this one?" Joe asked and lifted the left cast, the heaviest one, he thought, just a hair off the bed where it had lain. For a moment, he thought the doctor would grab his father's other hand but when he didn't, Joe felt fear rising like hot scalding acid in his stomach up to the back of his throat, threatening. Instead Paul Martin simply laid his hand down over the cast and pressed it back down

"I did what I could on that one Joe. But I am not sure that its gonna be enough for it." And Joe saw again the bootheel coming down onto the back of that same hand slowly, like molasses moving in January. He could feel again the instant the crushing heel hit solid flesh then felt as the flesh give way into white-hot pain. As though from a great distance away, he heard Paul Martin's voice say "I'm sorry Joe. I did what I could but it may not be enough. I'm sorry"

Ben watched Joe's eyes as Paul Martin spoke. He saw the green fire go dark in remembrance and as Joe subconsciously raised the arm and held it closer to him, Ben could almost feel the pain swirling about his son. Sorry, Ben thought, wasn't enough.

"But you can do a lot to help yourself, young man. Starting right now. You need to let your body heal. Pushing yourself like you did yesterday is not going to help you in the long run. Rest, proper rest, eating right and doing what your doctor tells you." And for once, the doctor saw Joseph Cartwright accepting what he was telling him. "And the first thing I am telling you to do with those hands of yours is to do absolutely nothing with them. That's one of the reasons that plaster goes clear to your fingertips. Don't try to lift anything, move anything, push anything with those hands. I would have advised a sling to support them but you've got a place up on your shoulder that took me a whole lot of stitching to close up and I don't want the extra weight pulling it open. So for the time being the only place I want to see those hands and arms are flat on the bed. If you will stay in bed the rest of the morning, you can get out of bed for a while this afternoon. But you only go as far as the nearest chair then. Seeings how your brother got this suite with the veranda overlooking the street, you can go out there and sit for a while in the sun. But you are not to exert yourself in any way. Do you understand me?" He waited for the explosion he had come to know as Joseph Cartwright.

It didn't come.

For a few long moments, Joe listened to the beat of his own heart, the room was that quiet. As he did so, his body began to whisper that the doctor was right. It needed to rest. It hurt and needed to heal and that it would not take the sort of abuse he had given it the night before. If so, at the first opportunity, it would betray him the same way it had last night in the hallway. When he tried to take a deep breath, the damaged ribs warned him sharply. A slight shift of his chest and the shoulder cautioned against further movement. And he knew his knee would tolerate no weight on it that morning. It would buckle and give way at the least provocation. The only parts of him not giving hue and cry oddly enough were his hands. And he knew the only reason why was that the damage done to them was just so absolute.

"All right. For now," came his answer, his voice full of resignation.

Chapter Three: What would it take for a man to cross that line between revenge and justice?
And is he prepared to be the only one there?

"Just take them out and burn them, Hoss," Adam shouted again and watched Hoss flinch as though he had struck him with more than just words.

"But they's your favorite books, Adam," Hoss protested again.

Adam shook his head angrily. "Not any more. Just burn them. Please." And he turned back to the rest of the growing pile in the hallway.

When they had returned home the evening before, both men had been too exhausted, both physically and emotionally to do anything beyond trying to sleep wherever they could find a place to stretch out. At first, Hoss had thought to lie down on the makeshift bed they had recently helped their brother from. But as he had lain there, haunted thoughts kept returning and would not let him forget the limp feel of his brother in his arms. When he normally thought of Joe, the thoughts were all of bright sunlit motion. To touch him was to feel Life at its most enjoyable level, something very much akin to touching laughter, Hoss thought. But as he had reclined on the hard narrow mattress, all he could recall from just a short while ago was how much his brother now felt like a rag doll, without form or substance. Finally, unable to stand it any longer, Hoss had sought the solace of the barn and the animals there.

In the barn, with the lantern lit to dispel the dark of night, Hoss Cartwright found a certain amount of peace and comfort. With his huge hands grasped around the currycomb and brush, he tended to the horses there. During the long hours he worked on each animal, he spoke no words. None were necessary for him. While he had stood watching his father try to comfort his baby brother in the hotel room, he had felt an increasingly heavier load of anger. He had wanted to seek out those responsible and crush them beneath his hands but he wasn't sure now if that was a load he was prepared to carry the rest of his life. He needed answers to questions he could barely consider asking for when Hoss had a question in his heart, he knew of only three places to turn for the answers. If it had been one to be answered by logic and education, he would have turned to Adam. But in Adam he had seen the same hatred and need to lash out growing in him as well. For the answer to other Life problems, Hoss would normally have turned to his father, trusting in him for the direction he needed. Hoss couldn't bear to add to the load he knew his father carried. So he turned to his ultimate source. God. Out there in the barn, working on the coats of the horses all ready brushed to perfection, it was as if he had heard the voice of God. "Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord".  And as the early rays of dawn's early light came over the eastern mountains, Hoss left the barn, asking God to help him with the rage he knew was building in his brother Adam, his own frustration finally overcome.

Adam had also been unable to sleep but fitfully. Finally he too had arisen and prowled the remains of the home he had known all his adult life. He found himself in his father's study with an unbroken bottle of whiskey for comfort, sitting on the floor, going through a pile of what had been pushed aside as rubble. In the dim light from the one unbroken lamp, he recognized what he had found. They were the letters he had written to his father while he was away at college. With hands shaking from fatigue and more than a little of the whiskey, he had opened the letters and read again the words he had written years before. Some of the letters talked about the classes he was taking, something new he had learned, a professor and a discussion he had had. With a jolt, Adam realized that more and more of what he read there had nothing to do with his studies. They were words that spoke of his family and home. How was the ranch doing? What animal had Hoss brought home last? What was Little Joe up to? Was his father all right? How he missed them. Adam thought that he hadn't wanted the life back there full of towering pines and wide open spaces. That he wanted nothing more in life than what he had then: the civilized way of the east where a man with his education was respected. But what he read in the letters he himself had written was the strong undercurrent of wanting to return home.

"Home," he snorted, looking around himself as he tilted the bottle back again. Once more, he looked at the pages in his hand and saw a dark stain across a corner of one. In his mind's eye, he saw the discoloration as dried blood, the price a brother had paid trying to defend that home and those carefully treasured letters his father had kept. With growing anger, he balled them into his fists, then proceeded to tear others into shreds and finally flung them against the far wall. If the light had been better, Adam would have seen that the stain was not blood, but where ink had run from a teardrop. And the damage he did to the precious letters was far greater than what any vandal had done.

As he continued to sort through the pile, Adam came upon other things long forgotten. These were the treasures of small boys, brought to their trusted father for safekeeping. They were also the telltale signs of a life spent being a parent. A report card of Joe's, so dismal that Adam chuckled, knowing it had to have earned his brother a tanned hide. But he knew the punishment hadn't changed anything. For a young boy so bright, it had seemed that Joe was just not learning. Adam recalled that Joe had learned to read from him, the winter Joe had been about four. Sitting with Joe in his lap in the blue velvet chair next to the fireplace, Adam had helped his brother sound out words in Hoss' reader from school. No, Joe wasn't stupid or slow. Just not interested.

Also in the tattered papers, Adam found a picture that had come from Hoss' hand. It was a childish one, full of bright sunshine and what Adam took to be small animals frolicking in high grass. On it, Hoss had written in letters much smaller than Adam would have thought Hoss' hands could have formed were the words "feel better, Pa. I love you, Hoss." This he put carefully aside determined to try and salvage it, despite the fact it reeked of lamp oil. Other papers he knew would not be so fortunate but he was loath to finish their destruction. How could he? These were his father's things. His father's memories. Once again, determined to try and save something of the jewels of parenthood, Adam spread the papers before him, smoothing each one as carefully as he could, heedless of what they were. He stopped when he came to one page, nearly torn in half. The sight of it made his blood run cold, as if a hand from beyond the grave had reached up and grabbed at his heart. It was one of the many deeds and titles to the land that was collectively known as the Ponderosa. This one, Adam recognized as being the original land grant his father had earned as a homesteader to the very ground this house sat on. And as he held it close to the lamp for verification, Adam saw the dried blood that nearly obliterated half the words.

Now hours later, the two remaining brothers sought to make some sense of the chaos that they called home.

"I'm telling you, Hoss, the best thing to do is just burn what we can. Look around you? Do you know what I see?  I see destruction and torment. Every other thing I touch has Joe's blood on it, it seems like.  I kept seeing him fighting those hoodlums, trying to protect not himself or Hop Sing but our way of life here. And it wasn't worth it, Hoss. It just wasn't worth it."

Hoss jammed his hands back into his pockets, his shoulders slumping. "And by burning it all, it really makes it not worth it, don't it?"

He watched as Adam mulled the thought over, hoping that God had heard his prayer earlier and was going to answer it quickly. He couldn't risk letting Adam's anger get the best of his brother. As volatile as his youngest brother was, Hoss knew Adam's fury was worse to deal with. Where Joe's was quick and hot, it usually burnt itself out just as quickly, but Adam's was slow and deliberate and that fire took longer to quench and did more damage before it died. As much as he loved his brothers, Hoss knew he was half-afraid of them. Not for what they could do to him with their fists but what they could do to themselves and ultimately to his heart. Now his heart hurt as he watched the rage come to Adam's dark features again.
"Burn it, Hoss or I will. It doesn't matter which one of us does it just as long as it gets done."

In the end, Hoss relented and carrying ruined items from the house into the open area beyond the back of the house started a bonfire. The ravaged bedding, having been soaked by the vandals with lamp oil, burned rapidly. Adam's books, pages ripped and back broken made small glowing coals. The broken bedframe from Hoss' room added to the heat. Throughout the day, the two brothers continued to slowly add to the pile. For those things that would not burn, the broken glass of lamps and crystal goblets, the shards of pottery and china plates, there was a barrel filling by the kitchen door. They had quit for a cold lunch of sandwiches in the kitchen when they heard a noise in the yard in front of the house.

"Wonder who could be calling?" Adam wondered aloud but got up and headed for the side door, determined to run any visitors off. Instead, he saw his father standing there, a piece of broken china in his hand.

"Pa," Adam greeted softly, then went and stood before his father. Realizing his father had neither seen nor heard him, Adam called to him again and this time put a hand over his father's hand, the one holding the broken dish.

"I told Marie that those dishes were just not practical but she insisted. Just because we lived all the way out here, there was no reason we had to act like barbarians and eat off tin plates." Ben reminisced then shaking himself almost physically looked up into Adam's brooding eyes. "I saw the smoke from out back of the house."

Adam allowed his hand to stay resting on his father's forearm for another long moment. "There were things that were just too far gone to try and salvage, Pa. I'm sorry. But what are you doing out here? Is Joe okay?"

Dropping the broken china back into the barrel, Ben nodded, not trusting his voice right then. He stared but a moment at the front of the house and took it in, like man seeing a friend for the first time in ages and realizing the passage of time had not been kind to the friend.

"I remember when we laid the foundation for this house, Pa. Remember? Hoss was what, four, five years old? I remember it like it was yesterday. You and Marie were so happy that day. You said you couldn't get the walls up fast enough." And as he spoke, Adam let his arm fall across his father's shoulders in a half embrace, something he rarely did.

Ben sighed and his face took on a little light as his lips pulled into a half smile. "Marie had told me just that morning that your little brother was on his way so I had ample reason to want the house finished as soon as possible. I certainly didn't want to deal with a new baby in that old cabin we were in at the time."

"Ah, that's why you were so happy. And here all these years I thought it was because you were building something." Adam tried to tease but felt his father's shoulders slump beneath him and knew he had failed.

"I was. We were. We were building an empire, Adam. You right there beside me. All the way, weren't you? But look at it now. Ruined, just a shell standing."

"Pa, you have always told us that your empire is not the land. It's not the house nor the furniture or the things in the house. Your empire is your sons. Me, Hoss and Joe. That we were the things that mattered most to you. Well, we are still here, Pa. A little damaged for sure but we are still here. All these other things can and will be replaced. But your empire is still intact."

Still studying the front of the house, Ben pursed his lips. "Trust my eldest to give me back my own words."

Adam just gave his father a slight tug to the embrace and smiled a quick and fleeting smile that didn't reach his eyes. Then he let his arm drop and he turned to face his father full on. "I don't think it would be a good idea for you to come in the house right now, Pa. Hoss and I have.." but before he could finish his statement, his father brushed by him and went on into the house that had sheltered his empire.

Ben thought that he was ready for what he saw. After all, he had been in the ravaged house for almost two days before deciding to move into town. But now, tired and released from the strain of trying to remain positive for the sake of his youngest son's condition, Ben saw just how much damage had been done.

Hoss had stepped around into the dining room from the kitchen, his lunch now finished. He was glad to see his father but worried all at the same time. "Pa! Thought you were gonna stay in town with Joe and Hop Sing! They okay?"

"When I left your brother was sleeping and Le Chan had come to talk with Hop Sing. Doc Martin was in first thing this morning to check on Joe. Told him he wasn't real happy about Joe getting into town the way he did."

Hoss shoved his hands into his pockets and tried a smile that died quickly. "Well, I don't think none of us thought that was a good idea but Joe. If I could have not hurt him too bad I would have sat on him in the back of a wagon to get him there."

Ben slowly walked around the room, listening as Hoss spoke. His thoughts were divided. As Adam had said, the things there could be replaced but it was the memories brought by those objects that could not. As he half listened to Adam and then Hoss telling about what they were doing, his eyes took in the missing. The rearing horse statue that had been on the table behind the sofa had been a gift from an aspiring artist they had given work and food to one winter. It was gone. The large sweep of horns that had come from the first true Ponderosa bred and born steer that Marie had insisted be hung over the fireplace was gone as well. His favorite red leather overstuffed chair that had set beside the fireplace was gone as well. For but a brief moment, he saw his Marie, nestled back into the chair, their dark haired infant held in her arms as she nursed him. She had loved the chair just for that purpose, saying the arms were just the right height and that it felt as though she herself was being held and cradled when she sat in it. Maybe, Ben had thought more than once in his lifetime, that was why he had taken that as his favorite chair once Marie was gone: just to feel her there. He shook his head to clear the memory. The chair she had loved was gone, Marie also gone, and the infant she had held was now a man. Gone, Ben thought, all of it gone.

Finally the two sons stopped trying to get through to their father and simply watched as he walked around the now unfamiliar rooms, his hands reaching out to touch what remained.  They had no idea what he saw or thought he saw. They only knew he was in pain. A pain that only time would heal and then, not completely. Hoss finally tugged at Adam's sleeve and gestured for him to step outside and leave their father alone. Although he loathed doing so, Adam followed.

Neither man said a word to the other as they aimlessly stood in the yard. They could hear faint noises from inside the house as their father moved about.

At last, Hoss broke the spell. "What are we gonna do, Adam?"

For all his education and reading, Adam could find no words to give voice to what he felt at that moment. He wanted revenge, that was a given and thought he would not need to speak of it. But at the same time, he wanted it all to just go away so that he wouldn't have to deal with it at all. Like so many things onerous, it had fallen to him to pick up the pieces of the family and continue. To put the pieces back together right was a chore he had done before but he had always had one simple reassurance as he did so: he had a warm and comfortable home to go back to every night he needed it. Now he didn't.

Hoss and Adam both turned when they heard their father come from the house, headed towards them."Boys, do what you can.  Adam, take whatever men or money you need." And he couldn't bring himself to even look at the house behind him so he focused on the two grown sons before him. "When you can, come into town so we can try to be a family."

"We'll get it fixed up, Pa, don't you worry. You just take care of Joe and Hop Sing. Adam and I will do the rest." There was a conviction in the simple words Hoss spoke that made even Adam almost believe it was possible.

"I will, boys. Come into town tonight if you can so we can have dinner together," Ben requested and even though Adam knew he was dead tired, he knew he wouldn't have missed it for all the silver in the Comstock Lode.


Chapter Four: When you know you are right, speak up.
When you think you are right, stay silent.

The late afternoon sun shining through the leaves of the big oak dappled the ground with bright spots and shadows. The four boys there beside the stream laid back and watched the shifting patterns of light and dark.  They had told their folks they were going fishing but in truth, their poles lay to one side, the lines not in the water. They had bigger problems to work out than where the fish were biting.

Jeremy Taylor chewed on his lower lip as he considered the shifting shadows."What are we gonna do, guys?  The sheriff suspects something, I know he does."

"Why? 'Cause he came and talked with your pa?" his companion to his left asked.

Jeremy rolled to that side and looked at him.

When other folks looked at Brian Fair, they saw his bright blonde hair and cherub like face graced by equally bright blue eyes. He was always polite and many of the citizens of Virginia City thought him to be a perfect child, the son of the richest mine owner James Fair and his lovely wife Millicent. Brian went out of his way to always appear that way to his father's friends for one simple reason. Behind closed doors, his father was an absolute tyrant who ruled Brian's life with an iron hand. It was only when Brian was away from the adults that his true nature showed through and it was a nature just like his father's: cold, cruel and calculating. He was well on his way to growing up just like his father really wanted. The boys he ran with knew he was just as apt to hurt and maim as he was to give comfort. It all depended on who was watching. And that afternoon, there was no one of any importance watching.

Morgan Taylor spoke up from the other side of Brian. "Yeah, 'cause he talked with our pa. Not only that, I heard in the mercantile that Joe Cartwright ain't doing so well."

Morgan, like his brother, was a worrier. Having stood and lied bald faced to Sheriff Coffee had made him uncomfortable and he had worried ever since that if the lawman caught him alone, he wouldn't stand a chance. He would cave and tell what he knew without much provocation. So he had determinedly stayed close to Jeremy and Brian.

The fourth boy in the group was sixteen year old Johnny Kincaid. Unlike the other boys he hung out with, he was not from a wealthy family in town. He also did not have the luxury of going to school. He'd had to quit so he could help support his mother and younger sister. He had had a whole series of odd jobs that never seemed to stay with him for very long. Jobs from mucking out stalls at the livery stable, to running errands for the girls down on D Street. His latest job of washing dishes in the International House Restaurant only kept him part way out of trouble. Part way since he only worked three nights a week. That left him with lots of time on his hands to practice what he did best: pick fights and torment the living hell out of the younger children of the town. More than one child had lost a few pennies to Johnny when he grappled them on their way into Wilson's candy store. Recently he had even branched out and began a more lucrative business: small time burglary.  So far it hadn't escalated to the point where the law was looking into it but Johnny felt sure that it soon would.  He also felt sure that the dumbest thing he had ever done in his life was the beating he and the others had given Joe Cartwright.  It had been Johnny's intent to rob a few small things while the other boys had their fun. Then when found out, the worst thing that he felt could happen was a stern talking to. The other boys families would have to pay for what they broke but with him being from a poor family, nothing would happen. But things changed when blood had been spilled.

"If he ain't doin' so well, how come his pa and their yellow houseboy done moved him into the best suite of rooms at the International?" he challenged. "Not only that, I saw him with my own eyes walking in the back alley with his two brothers last night."

Jeremy's eyes narrowed into slits as he considered this new piece of information. "Well then how come we ain't sitting in the jail right now?"

Brian laughed what he thought was his most adult laugh, chiding his cohorts. "Maybe Cartwright can't tell them who done it. After all, he's just a dumb rancher. He don't mess with us town folks, you know. Our families are on different level, socially speaking, ya know. Can't remember but just a few times that my father has had anything to do with them Cartwrights and that has been all business."

"Our pa says the Cartwrights own half of Nevada. So that makes them pretty wealthy people don't it? Maybe as rich as your pa, Brian? Or richer?"

Brian's blue eyes took on an ugly squint. He didn't like the idea of anyone being richer or more powerful than his family. "It ain't what you own that makes you rich, kid, it's what you do with it. What do the Cartwrights do with their land?  They run stinking cattle and horses on it. Not only that, all them Cartwrights work. Do you think a really rich man, like my father, works? No. So don't even put them Cartwrights even close to us Fairs, ya understand?" and he ended by bunching his hands into fists and waving one at Jeremy.

"Break it up, you three," Johnny hissed. "As long as we stay quiet, ain't nothing gonna happen. Brian is right about one thing. I don't think Joe Cartwright could identify us. That's why the law hasn't come looking yet. And they won't unless one of us talks. And none of us are gonna say a thing."

"What about Simon?" Morgan asked quietly, mentioning the name of the one boy who had been at the Ponderosa that fateful afternoon but was not with them then.

Johnny rubbed his fist into his other palm. "Simon Kingsley will stay quiet cause I told him to real loud and clear."

The other boys caught the message behind the words very clearly.  If Johnny could intimidate the governor's nephew, he could have his way with anyone, them included. Each one resolved to stay silent.

 When Ben Cartwright returned that late afternoon to the suite of rooms, he found Joe sitting up in the rocking chair just inside the double doors that led out onto the porch. The bright sunlight flooding into the room seemed to have no effect on the chill Ben felt when seeing his son's face again. It was the reason why he had purposely not answered Adam and Hoss when they had questioned how their brother was doing earlier. When Ben had left and now when he had returned, the expression in his son's eyes was the same: lifeless. There was no spark that came to their emerald depths. The fire was gone cold in his son.

Stepping closer to him, Ben forced cheerfulness into his voice he was long from feeling. "Glad to see you're up, son. I rode out to the ranch this afternoon."

If he had expected a response from Joe, he didn't get it. Joe simply sat looking out at the street below him. Across from him, on the bureau, sat the lunch Ben had ordered for him from downstairs. It was untouched. Ben knelt beside the rocker and reached out and turned Joe's face to him gently. After a moment, Joe closed his eyes to his father's worried expression, unable to stand it longer. All the same he leaned into his father's touch.

"Help me back to bed, will you, Pa?" Joe whispered.

Ben swiftly stood and helped Joe get to his feet. Joe leaned heavily against his father and took a few tentative steps before he stopped. He tried taking a deep breath to steady himself but the stitching pain up his side took it away. He started to turn more into his father but his knee began to give way beneath him and he felt himself sagging into Ben's arms. Where will power failed him, his father did not and with one swift motion, Ben had Joe's slender form cradled in his arms and was taking the few remaining steps to the bed.

The days that followed were like the toy soldiers he had played with as a child. All alike, no variation. He would awake with the coming of the morning sunlight into the bright room and the sound of his father's voice accepting the tray brought up from the fine restaurant there in the hotel. Then there would be his father's tap at the door and as he entered, a cheery good morning. Ben would help him to sit up and then feed him what little he would eat, holding the cup of coffee for him to drink from. Even though he never ate enough to make his father truly happy, he ate enough to satisfy his scant need and Ben would relent. From somewhere, Hop Sing would appear as if by magic, helping his beloved young man with all those things he couldn't do for himself. At first the two had not spoken aloud but then the protective instinct in Hop Sing had taken over and he started dealing with Joe like he had when Joe was truly an infant. Instructions to stick out an arm for a sleeve to be slipped on, hold still while Hop Sing brushed the chestnut curls into place and even though it was hardly necessary, Hop Sing also gave Joe a shave daily. The first time Hop Sing had approached him with the straight razor in his hand, Joe nearly had passed out from pure fright. But then deciding that Hop Sing would do him no harm ever, had relaxed into the process. Now the mornings passed easily and they would talk quietly between themselves. Le Chan would stop in every other day or so and join them, always letting Joe and Hop Sing direct the conversation.

"Joseph," Le Chan spoke softly as he always did but this time in his clear unaccented English. Hop Sing had left the room to prepare them some green tea and Le Chan wanted the opportunity to speak plainly. "Do you realize that he never speaks of what brought you both to this point in your lives?"

"Yes and never in English. But I can't say I blame him, Le Chan. I don't want to think about it either. But every time I go to pick something up, I get a quick reminder."

"I want to try something and I need your help, Joseph. Will you help me?"

For half a dozen heartbeats, Joe studied the other man, then nodded once. Le Chan smiled and leaning over patted the younger man's leg as he sat on the settee in the parlor of the suite.

When Hop Sing returned with the tea service, Le Chan expressed his thanks to Hop Sing and accepted the fine porcelain cup. "I want to thank you for your hospitality here, Hop Sing.  I know that this is a most difficult time for you and your family. I am surprised though that you have not ventured into our town during your extended visit here. I would welcome you at my home at any time you know." Hop Sing bowed slightly in acknowledgment. Le Chan continued "But what I do not understand is why you hide. Have you done something to bring dishonor to your name?"

Joe's heart went to his throat and try as he might to get a sound out passed it, he couldn't so he sat in tortured silence as Le Chan continued probing. The war of emotions and raw agony on Hop Sing's face was so evident and all encompassing, Joe felt terror for his friend. But at long last, he found his voice. "Hop Sing, what do you remember happening? You have to help me, I can't remember but bits and pieces. I can't remember what they looked like and until we find them or tell Roy what they looked like, those boys won't pay for what they have done. Help me, Hop Sing, help me to remember."

Hop Sing's almond eyes danced around the room, as though searching for something to anchor himself on. Finally they came back to rest on Joe's face. With only the sound of Le Chan's cup being set down on the tray to mark the occasion, Hop Sing began the long climb back to sanity. And the only reason was because the young man he considered to be his son asked for his help.

"I remember men, no, boys, holding me down. Big boy, he cut here." He indicated his shortened que. " After that I no remember anything. Only that Joe need me and I no can find him."  Once again, he turned his face to Joe, seeking the green eyes that had so enraptured him as a young man first come to the Ponderosa. Hop Sing saw passed the fading bruises and healing small cuts. And smiled for the first time in a long time.

The afternoon sun felt good on his chest as he sat on the veranda, his shirt open for the simple pleasure of feeling the sun. His ribcage was still wrapped tight to protect the healing ribs and there was still a heavy pressure bandage on his shoulder. And of course his hands were still encased in their plaster casts from fingertips to elbow. But for the first time since he had come to the hotel room, Joe Cartwright was beginning to feel human. A very babied and coddled human but a human nonetheless. If he could have figured how to get past the twin lions at the gate known as Pa and Hop Sing, he believed he would have gone down to the Bucket of Blood that afternoon. But there was no way they were going to let that happen!

"Want some of this?" came the deep voice behind him and a whiskey bottle slipped over his good shoulder.

"You know, Adam Cartwright, I am going to have to rethink our relationship." And using both casts awkwardly he clasped the bottle. Adam reached over and pulled the cork out for his brother then pulled another chair out into the light. He had ridden into town to place an order at the mercantile and dropping by the Silver Dollar, had seen his father across the street with Roy Coffee. The opportunity to spend time alone with Joe had presented itself well and Adam decided to take it. He had tried his best when around his morose brother to remain upbeat and positive because Pa had put his foot down early. They weren't to discuss what was or wasn't happening at the ranch. That, according to Adam's thinking, was the worst they could possibly do for it left little else to talk about. But then he had seen his father across the street and with a flash of inspiration had bought the bottle and headed for the hotel. Finding Joe enjoying the outdoors had been an unexpected bonus.

"Nope, we will always be brothers. Hey, go easy on that stuff," he protested and took the bottle from his brother after Joe had tipped it back and had a long swallow of it. "How you holding up?"

"Some days are better than others. Adam, tell me what's happening at home. Pa won't tell me anything. And he says we can't go home for a while yet. Why not, Adam?"

Adam tilted his chair onto the back two legs and leaned against the side of the building, letting his hat dip over his eyes. He crossed his arms over his wide chest and heaved a deep sigh. "How much do you want to know?" he drawled softly, afraid of the answer his brother would give.

"It's my home too and I am being kept from it. I want to know everything, Adam."
Peeking out from under the brim of his black hat, Adam saw not the determined young man he had helped climb the stairs but the frightened little boy who had come to him when nightmares threatened and horrors became real.

"Most of the furniture is beyond repair. Hoss and I were able to salvage a little of it but not much. I, uh, I did a dumb thing the other day." And he leaned down and picked up the whiskey bottle he had set between them. He took a long drink of it, not wanting to fill the silence any other way. He put the bottle into his brother's lap.

"Now that I would have loved to have seen. You doing something you think was dumb. Come on, tell." Joe managed to get himself another long pull on the bottle. Looking at it, he didn't think it was going to last long the way he and Adam were hitting on it. Never really one for whiskey, Joe found his head beginning to buzz just a bit already.

"Well, Pa's chair was cut up pretty bad. So Hoss and I fixed a box up and I sent it to the place in San Francisco where your mother bought it. Wrote them a long letter and told them what happened. Asked them if they could fix it some how." Adam resumed his reclining position against the building.

"I wouldn't say that was dumb, Adam. Might turnout to be real expensive but I think in the long run, it was a wise decision."

Adam pushed his hat brim back with one long finger and studied his little brother.
"What else, Adam?" Joe didn't even look in Adam's direction. He could feel his brother's eyes on him.

The list would be shorter to tell you what wasn't busted, abused, damaged and just generally trashed, Adam thought but knew that he couldn't voice those words to Joe. It hurt too much for him to even think about, much less for the fragile brother he saw next to him. Adam had seen how Joe's mood had darkened since being forced to come to town and thinking if he really knew how much his home was destroyed, it would have sent him careening into complete self destruction.

"Well," Adam drawled " Hop Sing is gonna love me, I know. I've just ordered him a whole new set of pots and pans. You know, cooking gear for the kitchen. New dishes too." A blind man would have seen the cloud that passed over Joe's soul and Adam wanted to kick himself for mentioning it. His step-mother and father had bought those rose colored dishes before Joe was born. They had eaten every meal at that table from those same dishes. Now that was past. Adam watched as Joe lifted the bottle from his lap and drank from it again.

"Over next to Pa's desk. Did you find…" but before Joe could go further, he felt Adam's hand on his upper arm, stopping him from another pull on the whiskey bottle.

"Yes, I found all of their pictures. Marie's frame was bent and… " 'and had blood on it' he started to say but stopped before it came out. Joe simply nodded.

"It would," he said, "I used it to hit one of those boys, trying to get away from them."

Adam patted his little brother's arm and smiled. "Marie would have done the same thing, I'm sure. No, on second thought, she never would have let them get into the house in the first place. God, you think Hop Sing is a tyrant around there, your mother was worse yet. You didn't dare track mud into the house. And if you didn't take your hat and gun off at the door, she would scowl at you and threaten all sorts of dire punishment. I remember once when Hoss had a passel of puppies and he brought them into the house for you two to play with. Well, the puppies did what puppies do and when Marie found the evidence in the form of a chewed slipper, well, let me put it this way. I don't think Hoss sat down comfortably to eat for a week. Marie found good use for that ruined slipper!"

For several long minutes, the two didn't speak, each lost in their own thoughts. Then Adam let the front chair legs back down with a little thump and he leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, his chin resting on his fists.

"I want to go home, Adam," Joe whispered, the sound full of raw pain.

"I know you do, Joe, but not just yet. Okay?" Adam's deep baritone softened as well to just above a whisper.

"No! I want to go home now. I need to go home now. Please?" Joe pleaded.

Adam got out of the chair and knelt down before his brother. He took the whiskey bottle from between the two casts and held the broken hands together with his own. "Not just yet, Joe. I have to make it …safe again. Can you understand that? I have to make it okay for you to come back to." And me, too, he thought

His eyes brimming with unshed tears made them bright emeralds as he looked at Adam. "But things don't make a house safe, Adam. People do. You and Hoss and Pa there. Hop Sing too. That's what makes it a safe place. To me at least.  I want to go home." Adam thought that the whiskey he and Joe had drunk so freely began to catch up to Joe and then Joe leaned forward, letting his head finally come to rest on Adam's dark clad shoulder.

"Soon, Joe, soon you can go home. I promise you." Adam said softly and let his free hand caress the dark silky curls at the back of his brother's neck. "Soon." He whispered again and prayed he wasn't lying.

"Met Doc Martin in the hall. He says you're healing up quite nicely, for once in your life." Ben 's voice boomed out across the elegant parlor to where he saw Joe and Hop Sing sitting. From somewhere, and he would have bet it was Le Chan's doing, a mysterious game made of engraved tiles showing dragons and castles and oriental script had appeared. Now every afternoon that he wasn't sitting on the veranda, Joe and Hop Sing were playing the game. Never having had a fascination for such, Ben had simply watched the two of them play, even though Joseph offered to teach him. Watching was more fun for him anyway. For during those hours, he watched the lines etched by pain and sadness smoothed from his son's face. Hop Sing as well became more adamant and Ben had even heard him speak English again for the first time when he had made a particularly triumphant move.

Joe didn't turn his attention from the tiles before him, intent on studying them but he did reply to his father. "Yeah, says another couple of days and he'll think about taking the stitches out of my shoulder."

"How about your knee? Any change there?" Ben queried softly, coming to stand over the table where they played. Joe's knee had become a continuing and perplexing problem. Despite all the doctor knew how to do, it remained painful and hard to flex. Joe had gingerly tried to walk on it but it always felt to him like the leg was giving way beneath him with every step.

"Well, the swelling is down. Again. He tried twisting it around some more. Says he thinks it got shoved out of place or something. Said he wished he could see inside it without cutting into it. But if it doesn't start coming around soon, he may just do that." Joe's tone was flat and it was almost as though he were talking about someone else's leg, not his own.

Hop Sing suddenly erupted with a triumphant shout and Joe groaned. Looking up at his father's puzzled expression, Joe shook his shaggy head. "How much did he pay you to come in here and distract me so he could win? He win much more off of me and he's gonna own my part of the Ponderosa, you know."

Chuckling, Ben let his two strong hands fall lightly to Joe's shoulders. "Hop Sing would you see about getting us some coffee from downstairs, please?"

There was a momentary pause while Hop Sing shifted the words through his mind and Ben saw Joe's head nod almost imperceptibly. Try as he might, Ben could not begin to fathom the depth of the relationship his son had with his cook. One minute they were like mother hen with a chick, the next like old friends and the one after that it was like Joe was Hop Sing's all mighty protector. All he really knew and understood was that the relationship between them was what was helping Hop Sing begin to cope with what had happened. Unfortunately, it wasn't helping Joe in the least. For the most part, Joe had remained morose and complacent. Far more complacent than his natural tendency for rebellion. The lack of fight in his son, Ben knew, was helping his body to heal better but it was difficult to see. Ben was thankful that Joe had not been more seriously injured in the recent events, as his lack of fight would have probably lessened his chances of survival.  Paul Martin had noted it early on and told Ben that he worried too much. But just now, in the hallway, he had told Ben that he had no cure for Joe's depression beyond time. He took it to be just another manifestation of the pain Joe had endured.

"What about your ribs?" Ben asked, trying to break the silence that had fallen over the room like a puff of smoke once Hop Sing had left for the requested coffee.

"They are doing okay, Pa. He still wants them bound though. Says another week and they should be pretty stable. Wants me to eat more, says I'm losing too much weight but I think he's wrong there."

Standing behind him, Joe couldn't see his father's expression change. Still letting his hands rest on Joe's slim shoulders, Ben thought to himself that he couldn't have agreed more. "Joseph, you never have eaten enough to keep me or the doctor happy."

"Well having these things on your hands kind of makes it hard to eat, remember? I just hate having to be fed like I was a little baby or something." And Ben nearly smiled at the rebellion creeping in just a little to his son's voice.

Ben was about to make a comment when they both heard the commotion going on in the hallway. Neither man had been able to move a muscle when Hop Sing catapulted into the room, his eyes wide with fright. Instinctively, Ben put himself between the flung open door and his son and as such, was able to grab Hop Sing roughly by the shoulders to stop his headlong flight. That seemed to only infuriate Hop Sing more and he struggled with Ben. Ben kept shouting at him to calm down and finally after a few harrowing moments, he did. Just as swiftly as it had begun, Hop Sing crumbled to his employer's feet, all but incoherent.

Heedless of the pain it caused himself, Joe was down on the floor beside Hop Sing before Ben could react. Grabbing Hop Sing's hands between his own entrapped ones, Joe kept up a litany only he and Hop Sing understood: "What boy? Where?" over and over again. Finally the words penetrated his terror.

"In dining room. He there. He do this." Since it was spoken in clear enough English even Ben understood. Somewhere terribly close at hand was one of those who had caused the torment and pain he had been witnessed to over the past ten days. Ben moved in close and grabbed Hop Sing's trembling shoulders.

"Show me, Hop Sing." Numbly, Hop Sing nodded.

Ben gave Joe a very long and hard look as Joe pulled himself back to his feet, as though to follow his father and Hop Sing. "You stay put. Hop Sing and I will be back. Stay put." He didn't like the idea, but Joe had to concede there was wisdom to the order.

Down in the main dining room of the International House, Carolyn Adkins and her nephew sat having their usual Friday afternoon lunch out. Being very society minded, they enjoyed seeing, as well as being seen at, all the best of places and this certainly ranked high on the list when it came to fine eating establishments in Virginia City. The Widow Adkins noticed Ben Cartwright as soon as the other man stepped into the dining room. Personally, she had nothing against the timber and cattle baron who had no rivals in the Virginia City area when it came to land wealth. What she did have against him was that he stood directly opposite in his politics from her brother, the current governor Mason Kingsley. And during his recent campaign for re-election, the governor had sought Ben's support and not received it. He'd won by a narrow margin but knew when the time came again, he wouldn't be so successful. Carolyn chalked it up to the outspokenness of the Cartwrights. Now as Ben headed towards their table, she noticed the Chinese cook tailing Cartwright closely. That, she thought, was not appropriate.

When Ben drew abreast of the table, he couldn't help but look down at the boy Hop Sing had pointed out from the doorway. The boy didn't look any older than say thirteen or fourteen with his straight brown hair slicked back from his face. Looks could be deceiving Ben thought, after all Joseph at twenty-two barely looked it either. But one look into the boy's dark eyes and Ben lost all feeling of possible compassion for the lad. The eyes that looked back at Ben reminded him of those of a predator. A scared and cornered predator.

"Mrs. Adkins," Ben greeted her coolly, with just the barest nod of his head. "I'd like to have a talk with this young fellow here if I could."

Carolyn Adkins dabbed her thin lips with her napkin and glared at the man who had interrupted her meal. Not only that, because of him dragging in his yellow houseboy, everyone in the restaurant was staring at her.

"Just what is it you wish to speak with him about?" she questioned haughtily and didn't seem to notice that Simon was squirming just a touch in his seat.

"Well, I don't know if you heard or not but we had a bit of trouble out at the ranch and wondered if this young man knew..." Ben began but never got to finish.

Throwing her napkin down and rising quickly to her feet, Carolyn Adkins stood and began screeching at the top of her lungs, not caring if half of Virginia City heard her or not as long a the man in front of her did. Her hands waving wildly in the air, she was nearly to the point of assaulting him.

"Simon knows nothing! Are you accusing him? I heard about what happened out there and I really think you should ask yourself about some of the riffraff your own son associates with down at that saloon! Wouldn't put it passed some of those drunken cowboys to have done it. But instead, you want to blame innocent boys! I really can't understand the likes of you Ben Cartwright! And how dare you bring him into a fine establishment like this?" With a jerk of her head, she made it clear that she was referring to Hop Sing.

The resulting sound of silence filled the room.

He hadn't liked her before and now he truly didn't like her one bit. Ben pulled himself up to his full and imposing height and glared down at the slender woman, thinking how sincerely ugly she was.

"Perhaps, we will let the law take care of it then," Ben dais evenly though he could barely control his voice. He turned his back on the woman and boy, pushing Hop Sing in front of him, wanting out of the room and to find Roy Coffee immediately.

Her shrill voice stopped him. "Oh, yes, get the sheriff!  Everyone in this town knows you own him. An honest man doesn't stand a chance against the likes of you, Ben Cartwright, does he? Forget about the fact that you are accusing boys, children, even!"

Ben slowly turned back to face her. His own sons knew the look he gave her and knew that right then the best place to be would have been miles away from Ben Cartwright. His soft but deep voice carried well across the small space between himself and the woman. "I wasn't accusing anyone. Yet." As his eye fell on the young man, he saw the lad flinch as though he had reached out and struck him. The silence in the room followed Ben out the door.

"Hop Sing, go back upstairs and stay with Joe. I'm going to find Roy Coffee." He didn't stay to see if he understood.

"What I am saying, Ben, is that you have to let the law handle this one hundred percent. Now if you want to swear out a complaint against Simon Kingsley, that's fine. But you had better be damn well sure of your facts before you do. Him being Carolyn Adkins nephew also makes him Mason Kingsley's nephew." Roy was trying to convince Ben to slow down and look at all the angles of the problem that evening. As he watched, Ben paced the confines of the elegant parlor of his hotel suite. When his deputy had told him of Ben's visit earlier, he had a bad feeling about going to meet with his old friend. He had been right.

"I don't care about who is family to who, Roy. All I know is that Hop Sing recognized the boy as one of those there that afternoon. And I want him arrested!"

"Well, now you just might want to consider that family arrangement a little closer. I only know one family closer than them Kingsleys and they happen to be Cartwrights. Mason Kingsley will haul out every high price lawyer and every judge he ever gave a hand up to iffen you go messin' with his family. I just want to make sure that you are positive about this boy bein' one of the ones who hurt your family. And as much as I hate to say it, Hop Sing's word ain't gonna be enough," Roy continued, beseeching his friend to calm down. It appeared that it wasn't working.

"What do you mean, his word isn’t enough?" Ben roared.

"Don't mean no disrespect, Hop Sing," Roy said, turning to where the cook sat in the corner of the room, just listening to all that was going on. "but a Chinaman can't testify in an American court. So his marking Simon as having been there don't hold water. Now, Joe if you could take a look at this boy and tell me for sure."

As much as he wanted to, Joe knew he couldn't swear to anything about that afternoon. He had spent long afternoons staring at the ceiling, trying not to relive the sequence of events. Now he was being asked to go over them and pick out a single face. Sitting there on the brocade settee, his bruises fading, it was all a nightmare to he wished he could awaken from. Wordlessly, he shook his head, staring at the floor before him, not wanting to make eye contact with his father, the sheriff and especially not his friend.

"Well, the least I can do is go talk to the boy, Ben, but that is all I can do: talk. But if you are so hell-bent on revenge for this whole doin's you better get over to the office and sign some papers for me." Roy smacked his hat back onto his head and without another word, left the rooms.

Ben shoved his hands into his pockets and looked out the window towards the west. The sun was setting in a fiery ball, casting an orange glow over the roof tops of Virginia City, making it appear as though half the town was on fire.

"Are you sure you didn't recognize any of the boys, Joseph?" he asked, quieter now.

"How many times do I have to say 'no' before you believe me, Pa?  If I could, I would, you know that but except for that one boy they called Johnny, the one with the knife in his hand, I can't bring one face to mind."

Ben began to pace again. An ugly thought had come to him while he was talking to Roy Coffee. As much as he preached otherwise about letting the law handle things, he wondered now if the law could give him what he wanted: revenge. Personally. And badly.

The same orange glow that covered the rooftops of Virginia City glanced off the windows of Brian Fair's room in the palatial home he lived in with his parents. It cast the same fire aspect to his blonde hair as he listened to Simon Kingsley tell of his close encounter in the restaurant. Simon had been unnerved by it all and had nearly told his aunt about his role in the whole affair. Now though, having laid it all out for Brian, he was calming down.

"I told you to stay quiet, Si, and that is all you need to do. Don't matter what old man Cartwright says, and his heathen cook ain't to be listened to by anyone important. See, in this country, he ain't even a person and so he can't testify in a court of law," Brian explained, trying to sound grown up beyond his years.  In fact, he was just reiterating what he had heard Judge Taylor say once while at Morgan and Jeremy's one afternoon.
"It ain't the cook I'm afraid of. It's what Joe Cartwright will say. And a court will listen to what he says. I been thinking that maybe we should just go to the Sheriff and tell him that Johnny made us do it. Maybe that we were drunk or something," Simon said, paying closer attention to the floor than to his friend's face.

"NO!" Brian shouted and grabbed the smaller boy by the shoulders roughly. He shook him for emphasis then gave him a shove that put the smaller boy on the carpet he had been paying attention to just a moment before. "Don't you dare. There is no way that story would be believed and you know it. So you just keep quiet or…or...or I'll fix you real good. Do you hear me, boy? Stay quiet."

Simon looked up at Brian's red face. He had seen Brian get that mad once before and a harmless puppy had paid the ultimate price for nipping at Brian's fingers. The incident had frightened Simon but he not as much as he was now.

The whitewash brush in his hand felt like it weighed far more than it actually did. While Hoss didn't mind work, sometimes his heart just wasn't in it and this was one of those times. He and Adam had decided that the best way to handle some of the telltale traces of the vandalism was with a new coat of whitewash on the wall. No, he thought, it hadn't been his idea at all. It had been Adam's and where was brother Adam? Adam was downstairs. And the tool he was using wasn't a paintbrush. It was a pen.

"Hey Adam!" Hoss hollered loud enough that Adam could have sworn that folks over in the next county could hear him.

Adam's "what?" was considerably softer in volume but carried his sense of irritation up the stairs from the study. He hadn't looked up from the letter he had been writing and Hoss' shout had interrupted the flow of a good sentence as he had tried to explain his problem to a supplier in San Francisco. Sometimes, Hoss could be just as irritating as Joe, Adam thought then corrected himself. No one could even come close to the level Joe could attain when it came to aggravating his older brother. And the funny thing about it was that Adam had the distinct impression that sometimes Joe did it just for the rise it got out of his brother. God, I miss him here. Wonder what Pa would do if Hoss and I kidnapped Joe?  Have a fit probably.

"I said I needed some more whitewash!" and this time the shout raised the hair on the back of Adam's arms since it was shouted full force and right beside him. Hoss had gotten the definite impression that older brother Adam was doing his best to ignore him.

"Now I know I got the short end of this deal 'cause I don't use them fancy words like you do. But I would think you could at least show some support here?"

"I was just thinking of something, Hoss." Adam started, leaning back in the chair and lacing is fingers behind his head.

Hoss reach out his gargantuan hands to his brother's arms, nearly covering Adam's biceps, and pulled his arms down. Still not releasing him, Hoss gently but forcibly tugged Adam to his feet. Adam had learned long ago that his gentle giant of a brother may not be so gentle after all.

"All right, all right. I'll go get you some more whitewash," Adam conceded and Hoss turned him loose. Wisely, he headed for the door.

"And bring another brush with you so's you can help up here."

"So much for finishing that letter", Adam muttered.

Once Adam had returned to the upstairs hallway where Hoss was busy once again, he decided that maybe he did need a break from his writing. Picking up the second brush, he moved a few feet down from Hoss and began applying the wash to the walls. For a few minutes they worked in companionable silence. Even though it was being done for an entirely different reason, the paint on the walls seemed to brighten the hallway and lift their moods. Finally, Adam could stand it no more and spoke up to break the silence.

"You know, big brother, I hate to admit this, but I kind of miss him not being here." Adam knew he didn't have to explain which "him" he was referring to.

"Yeah, I miss him somethin' awful. I mean, when we go into town and see him and Pa and Hop Sing, well it just ain't the same. I know Pa and the Doc said it was for his own good to get him out of here while we did all this, but some how it just don't feel right. You know what I mean?"

"Yeah, I know what you mean but there was no way Joe could have been comfortable here while we cleaned this up." Adam rubbed the back of his hand across his chin, smearing a dab of whitewash there.

"And you really think he's comfortable there in them fancy rooms, with nothing to do all day but brood?"

"No, Hoss, I know he's not. When I went in and ordered that bunch of stuff for the kitchen, I stopped by for a visit and took a friend along." He swished the brush over the wall.

"Ya took a friend? Who?" and Hoss' brush paused in mid-air as he considered his brother.

"Well, let's just say that Pa wasn't there and wasn't gonna be for a while, so Joe and I shared.."

"You took some of those women up there. Adam!"

"No, no. You got it all wrong there, Hoss. Hey, hit that spot a little higher up again. No, I bought a bottle of whiskey and took it up to him. We shared the whiskey, nothing else. Besides, you know his taste in women isn't the same as mine!"

Hoss chortled and turned to look at his serious older brother. He now had a smudge of whitewash across his chin and a spot on his dark shirt. "Pa catch you two drinking like that and he's liable to have a thing or two to say."

Adam waved his free hand aside as if brushing aside the comment. His father wouldn't know, if he had anything to do about it.  Sure when Adam had left, he had had to help Joe into bed but Adam felt it was more because of his brother's healing injuries than the liquor they had consumed.

"What would you say about getting Joe out of there for a while?" Adam asked, still looking at the wall before him but his brush not moving.

"Where you got in mind to take him?" Hoss dipped his brush into the bucket and proceeded to make broad passes at the wall again, this time right behind Adam.

"Hadn't thought that far ahead, really. Any suggestions? You know that we would have to sneak him out from under Pa's nose, don't you and that ain't liable to be easy. Not the way he's been acting lately."

"Well, we could always bring him home for a bit. Don't go getting like that on me Adam Cartwright!  I know we promised that business about the house being back like it was, but how successful you been in making it like that?"

Adam shook his head. Over the past ten days he had written letters and sent telegrams, trying to track down places that sold the sort of things he wanted to replace in the house. So far, all he had found was the place that sold his stepmother Marie the fabric for the curtains in his father's room. And there was no way, they'd replied, that they could replace that same fabric, twenty years later. And the chair his father loved to sit in each night by the fire was going to be repaired in San Francisco but it would take at least two months. Adam viewed his success rate as dismal.

"Maybe we should leave it up to him and let him decide." Adam suggested, stepping back to look at his wall.

"Okay, I'll get him aside tonight when we go into town. But we're agreed that it's his decision and we abide by it, right?" When Hoss saw Adam nod briefly, a glimmer came to the blue eyes. Nonchalantly he reached over and shoved Adam back onto the wall and thereby coated his older brother's backside with a fresh layer of whitewash.

The two younger Cartwrights stood on the balcony of the hotel suite, looking out over the darkening street of Virginia City.

"Why'd you ask that?" the youngest asked, easing himself into the rocker there and looking up into the growing gloom at his brother.

"Just tell me. Iffen you could get out of here for just one afternoon, where would you go?" Hoss asked softly, glancing back over his shoulder. Yes, Adam had their father fully engrossed on some minor detail of the ranch workings.

Quickly and softly Joe answered with the single word that Hoss knew he would. "Home."
"I'm telling you, Joe. Right now it just don't look like 'home'."

"What is going on, Hoss?" Joe asked, almost afraid of the answer.

But Hoss wouldn't budge. "Just be ready tomorrow about noon. Adam and I got a plan. Okay? Hey, we're your brothers! You can trust us." And that was all Joe could get from him.

So as much as he was able to be without drawing suspicions from his father or Hop Sing, Joe was dressed and ready the next afternoon. He tried to act surprised when his brothers showed up unexpectedly for lunch. And when he heard Adam tell his father that there was a message at the front desk the clerk was supposedly holding for him, Joe tried to hide his smile behind a casted hand. His father was no more than out the door and Hoss was grabbing Joe's boots and helping him on with them and Adam grabbing Joe's hat. In fact before Ben's last step down into the foyer of the hotel, his three sons were on their way down the hall and the back steps. When Joe had paused at the top of the steps, Hoss grabbed his brother up like a sack of potatoes and threw him over his shoulder to carry him down the steps.

"We ain't got time to argue the finer points Joseph so just hush up!"

The message the desk clerk handed Ben was on a single piece of white paper, written in a script he recognized immediately as belonging to his eldest son.

We have kidnapped your son Joseph and are holding him for ransom.  He will either laugh with us this afternoon or we will return him for disciplining. Should you decide to follow us, we will hold him even longer. No matter what, we will take care of him.

Ben looked down at the note and chuckled to himself. "You always have taken care of him, Adam. I can't see you and Hoss doing any different now."

"What are you two doing? Pa'll kill us…" Joe had started to protest as he had gotten into the buggy but when Hoss commanded him to be quiet for about the third time, he thought he should. Now a short way out of town, Hoss pulled the rig to a stop and Adam turned his horse around, looking into the dark shadowed recesses of the buggy, checking on his little brother's appearance.

"We ain't being followed are we, Adam?" Hoss asked anxiously.

A big smile spread across Adam's dark features as he looked back down the road they had just traveled. "Nope. Course having the smithy replace the shoes on Buck this afternoon was a stroke of genius. And don't worry, little buddy, we left Pa a note."

"Huh?" was all Joe could get out before Hoss and Adam nearly doubled themselves over in laughter.

"Yeah, we kidnapped our own brother!" Hoss finally admitted, wiping the tears of joy from his eyes with the back of one massive hand. The other hand came down gently on Joe's knee as he continued."You said the one place you would want to go for one afternoon was home so that where we're goin'. Just for a little while, you understand?"

Joe leaned back against the buggy seat and laughed. "Kidnapped!  By my own brothers! And taken home to hide from Pa! What's the ransom? And are you sure Pa's gonna want to pay it to get me back?" He was getting into the spirit of it finally and liking it.

Adam sobered for a moment, enjoying what he was hearing so he smiled. He reached over and lightly touched Joe's bad knee. "You just paid it, Joe."

"Well, why are we stopped here then? Come on Hoss! Do I have to drive?"

The rest of the journey was made in the same high spirits albeit slower than what Joe would have preferred but on that, Hoss was adamant. They had told their father in the note that they would take care of their brother and they intended to do just that. In spite of himself. But as they cleared the last rise and began the final approach to the house, Adam noticed Joe get quieter.

"Hoss, pull up!" Adam ordered and when Hoss did so, Adam dropped quickly down from Sport and stepped over to the buggy and Joe.

"You don't have to do this, Joe. It's okay if we just go on up to the Lake or wherever," he urged softly.

Joe's eyes flashed their deep green and gold and as Adam watched, the corner of one wavered for just a split second. He's scared but he wants it anyway. What are we doing this for? For him? Or for us? Can he really handle this? Can I handle this? Adam thought and once again reached out and put a restraining hand on Joe's knee. Beneath his hand he felt his brother's body jerk slightly.

"Joe, it's all right. We can turn around right now-" Adam started again but Joe cut him short.

"No, Adam I've got to do this. I need to do this. Please try to understand. Please, Adam?" Joe pleaded.

Adam looked across Joe to catch the look on Hoss' face. There he saw the open compassion he knew he would find for this baby brother of theirs. Hoss could deny Joe nothing it seemed, even when he tried. Adam relented. It seemed he couldn't either.

"Okay, but I am putting you on warning, little brother. I see one speck of fatigue or agitation in you and I will haul you back out into this buggy and have you back in Pa's hands so fast your head will spin. Do you understand me?" Adam warned viciously.

"You know Adam, when you get like that you remind me of an old momma black bear with one of her cubs." Joe teased, but the smile on his face didn't quite reach his eyes.
Adam kept his stern visage in place in addition to the hand resting on Joe's knee, gauging his brother's physical health as well as his emotional one.  Both Adam found wanting. "Well then, little cub, don't make this momma bear swat you to make you behave," Adam completed the analogy.

"Can we just go home?" and the pleading tone was back in Joe's voice.

His bad knee made his normal walk stiff and slow but with his typical determination, Joe made it into the house, shrugging off Hoss' and Adam's assistance. As he stood in the middle of the great room, the one thing that hit him the hardest was the silence there. It was more to him like he had walked into a funeral parlor it was so quiet, the air barely stirring. Where his father had looked around and saw what wasn't there, Joe looked for what was there. His father's desk still had the three framed portraits of Ben's wives. The dining room table still was dressed in its fine white cloth, a candelabra gracing the center of it as it did when the Cartwrights would hold a formal dinner party. The stair railing Joe remembered crashing through had been replaced. The tall grandfather clock by the front door sat mute. The square heavy planked table in front of the fireplace still held a bowl of fruit. As Joe stood there, he tried his best to keep his emotions in check but it was becoming increasingly more difficult to do. Within him raged the twin beasts of anger and sorrow, ripping at his very soul with their long talons, drawing tears from him with every malicious swipe. Finally he could hold himself silent and still no longer. His scream of "Why?" reverberated throughout the house.

Hoss had stood back and watched his brother closely. He had known it was going to come down to this but knew it had to happen or Joe would forever be haunted the same way he had. He had quickly engulfed his brother's slender body in his own substantial embrace, feeling the sobs wrenched as though from his own heart.  Hoss knew it was as much for comfort to himself as to comfort to his brother that he held Joe tightly to his chest. Adam had quickly moved into help as well, but found all he could do was place a caring hand to Joe's shoulder as Hoss held him. Adam looked to the floor, feeling tears of frustration coming to his own eyes.

Wordlessly, Hoss sent a prayer Heavenward, begging God to heal his brothers. Both of them.

The late lunch was a meager one compared to what the three brothers were used to eating at their father's table. There was cold roast beef sandwiches and coffee. The two elder brothers had looked at it with near disdain, wanting better fare for their third member. Joe, on the other hand, relished it. And now sitting on the front porch with a mug of coffee between his two imprisoned hands, he felt better than he had since it had all begun. He was home and he was with his family.

"Sure wish you would turn loose of Hop Sing so he could get back here and cook for us. I am sure am tired of drinking Adam's coffee.  He makes it so strong we been using it to scrub the paint off the floor."

"Well, if you would paint a little neater and not drop so much of it on the floor, we wouldn't have to scrub the floor at all," Adam shot back, not unkindly.

"Huh! Who got that whitewash all over themselves yesterday?" and good-natured Hoss squinted at his latest victim.

Black eyebrows cresting upward, Adam's rejoinder made Joe smile. "I had a lot of help, now didn't I?"

"Joe, you should have seen him, he was white-" Hoss started but Adam cut him off.

"I had help, now didn't I?" he repeated. "Besides if I hadn't come up and helped you, you never would have gotten anything done."

"Well, there was gettin' to be more on you than there was on the wall. Thought if you got anymore on ya' I wouldn't be able to find ya iffen you stood still next to the wall." With that, Adam took a half hearted swing at Hoss' head.

"How much more you got to do?" Joe asked.

"Not much but it's getting stuff replaced that is gonna take more time than I am sure Pa thought. I've written more letters and sent more telegrams than I thought would have been necessary," Adam admitted sourly.

"Why not use what's in Virginia City?" Joe asked simply and saw Hoss nod in agreement.

"I was trying to get it back the way it was, Joe. And Virginia City just doesn't have the same things San Francisco does or Saint Louis even."

"Sounds to me like no matter what it isn't going to be the same so why try to make it that way? I'd use what I could find close at hand."

Although it sounded like a perfectly simple answer, Adam didn't believe it could be that easy. Nothing of value ever was.

He had been determined not to, but Joe soon found himself nodding off while Hoss drove them back into town. The day had been tiring physically, yes, but more than that aspect was the returning comfort that no matter what else, there still was a home to go back to. Joe did care that there were pieces missing but they were minor ones compared to what he had feared. His nightmares had given rise to the overwhelming fear that the actual house itself was damaged beyond repair. But that afternoon he had seen that the walls still stood, the fireplace with its gray field stones still would hold a fire and the door still opened wide. The rest of it, Joe thought, would come back somehow.  All he had to do now was convince his father that they needed to return as well.  Then it would be home again. So even though he had tried otherwise, the ease that settled over him brought with it the weight of exhaustion he could not lift and he had fallen asleep on Hoss' shoulder.

It didn't surprise either of the two awake brothers that their father was waiting for them outside the front door of the International House when they pulled up just at dusk. Ben had been studying the interior of the buggy as it had made its way down the street and had been unable to discern anything about its occupants. When he realized that Joseph was slumped against Hoss, he nearly ran to greet it, fear uppermost in his heart. Then he saw Hoss nudge his brother and instantly recognized the way his youngest awoke from a deep slumber, slowly and half confused. By that time, the buggy was even with the front door of the hotel.

"Wake up, sleepyhead," Hoss fussed, rousing him again when Joe tried to settle back asleep.

"Well, boys. I see you found our kidnap victim safe and sound. Am I to gather that the ransom was paid in full?" Ben reached out to help Joe from the buggy. Joe glared at him but took the proffered steadying hand anyway. His knee was on fire and Adam watched him moving stiffly, scared that perhaps the day had been too much for Joe.

"Yep. Paid in full, Pa. Ah listen, Hoss and I are gonna go talk with Roy Coffee a bit then we'll be up."

"Talk with Roy about what?" Ben half demanded, still more concentrating on Joe than anything else.

"Just something we need to do." With that, Hoss smacked the reins and the buggy moved off, Adam following.

"Come on, Pa, you know they didn't want to face you after our little escapade this afternoon. Can we get up to the room? I'm beat." And Joe leaned more heavily on his father than he needed to, hoping to deter more questions while they were on the street.

"Okay then Roy, just what is it going to take for you to be serious about this?" Adam accused and Roy Coffee bristled noticeably at the tone and the words.

"I have been serious about this since day one, Adam Cartwright, and I don't appreciate you taking that tone with me, boy. The simple fact remains that until your brother can come up with better descriptions or names, I can't do a blessed thing," Roy argued back, leaning over his desk towards Adam, refusing to be cowed one bit.

"What about the boy that Hop Sing identified?" Hoss crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back against the doorjamb, waiting for an answer.

"That boy is the governor's nephew! He couldn't have picked a less likely body in Storey County. Why, that young'un ain't got the gumption to stand up to his Aunt Carolyn much less do something like I saw out to the Ponderosa."

"Since when does it take gumption for four, five boys to beat up one man and a person scared out of their wits? You know as well as I do, Roy, that when kids get together anything can happen," asserted the oldest Cartwright brother, not budging from where he had his knuckles planted on Roy's desk.

"I know that pretty well. After all, how many times have I had that youngest brother of yours locked up right over there in that cell for some of the shenanigans he's pulled over the years?"

"But Roy, Joe never, ever, did anything even remotely as serious as these kids did."

"So why can't you give young Si Kingsley the same benefit of the doubt, Hoss? I went and I talked with the lad and he was so scared he couldn't get half his words out without stumbling over them, he's so scared of me. Boy like that, afraid of the law, ain't gonna do anything to put him in the way of the law."

Adam pulled up to his full height and narrowed his eyes as he took in what the sheriff had just said. "Maybe he was so scared because he was guilty, Roy. Get over the fact of who he is and look at what he is. Hop Sing says he was there and that's good enough proof for me."

"But it ain't for the law."

Down in the kitchen of the International House Hotel, the scullery boy washing dishes that night was growing more and more concerned about his friends. He had heard from Brian about the incident with Simon and wondered how much longer the others would remain silent. There was only so many times you could threaten before you had to follow through. He was certain that Brian was cruel enough and smart enough to maintain his own form of discipline with the other boys. Johnny had seen him in action before and knew the Fair boy could be trusted to follow through with any threat he made. But what bothered Johnny more was the secret he himself had hidden away from the others that afternoon at the Cartwright ranch. He wondered how much Brian had guessed about the real reason why they had done what they had.

"Hey, boy, get your head out of the clouds and get them dishes washed. I don't pay you to daydream," the cook known as Colliers shouted at him and Johnny resumed his plate scrubbing. Soon, he promised himself, soon he would have enough put away to leave this Hellhole and go…where? Maybe San Francisco? He had to get away or else the likes of Brian Fair and Colliers would rule his life forever.

"Boy!" Colliers shouted at him again. "Get up to room 300 and pick up the dishes up there. And be quick about it."

Wiping his hands on his apron, Johnny headed for the back stairs. The front stairs were, of course, forbidden to the likes of him, a servant of the establishment. He had made it to the second landing and had one more flight of stairs to go when two big figures loomed out of the darkness and headed down the stairs toward him. Johnny pressed himself against the wall. He recognized them. They were Adam and Hoss Cartwright. Johnny kept his head down and remained silent as they passed him, laughing with one another about something. Once they were passed, Johnny resumed his trek up the steps then down the hallway to Room 300, the Cartwrights' room. But the dishes weren't outside the door as they normally were and Johnny's heart started pounding hard. All he had to do was knock on the door and someone would answer. He knew the odds were against him about who would open the door. The Chinese cook, Johnny knew would recognize him right off, the same way he had Simon. What were the odds that Joe Cartwright would open the door or even see him and recognize him? Too good, Johnny thought. So he was standing there, his hand raised to knock, yet not knock, when the door was yanked open and he was looking at the patriarch of the Cartwrights.

"Here you are young fellow," Ben greeted and rolled the dinner cart containing the assortment of dirty dishes Johnny had been sent for. "And, here's something for your diligence." Before Johnny could protest, the white haired man had pressed a quarter into the boy's hand and was shooing him out the door.

Johnny was sure his heart didn't start beating again until the door closed behind him. Pocketing the coin, he pushed the cart towards the back stairs and the anonymous life he led in the kitchen, smug now that he could get away with just about anything.

The snip snip snip sound in his ear was un-nerving but Joe sat shirtless in the rocking chair still as a mouse before a cat. The cat was Doc Martin and the snipping was the good doctor removing the stitches from the wound on his shoulder. Joe was determined not to look until the healer was finished, being just a touch squeamish about such things. First there was the snip sound as the doctor clipped the suture in half then the tiny little burning tug as he pulled the catgut thread from the healing flesh. He had first thought that he wouldn't pay the least bit of attention but the sound and sensation brought by it all were overpowering and he caught himself counting the stitches as Doc Martin removed them. By the time he got to twenty and Doctor was still cutting and pulling, his torso was covered by a thin sheen of sweat and his breathing was growing erratic.

Paul Martin chuckled deep in his throat. He took up a piece of clean cloth, upended the bottle of alcohol on it and watched Joe Cartwright's green eyes become glued to the track of the sodden cloth to his shoulder then he quickly looked away. For a moment, the doctor thought the young man would faint on him, he looked so pale but the groan as the alcohol hit the still tender flesh told the doctor that Joe would be with him for a least a few moments more.

"You know, young man, I have had you tell me time and time again that you were 'fine' when I knew you had busted ribs, sprained ankles, twisted knees even a broken collar bone once. You have always struck me as one of the bravest and toughest men I have ever treated for gunshot wounds, beatings, getting thrown from broncs, and every childhood disease to come down the pike. By all rights, a little thing like taking stitches out shouldn't bother you one bit."

Joe drew a shaky breath that almost made the doctor laugh right out loud. "Well it does, Doc." When the doctor pulled the alcohol swap away, Joe quickly averted his eyes.

"Ah well, that does look good now. Go ahead Joe; take a look," Paul Martin encouraged.

Fearful, Joe slowly turned his head and looked at the top of his now exposed shoulder. All that he saw was a thin angry red line that ran from up close to his neck out to the top of his shoulder.

"You do good work, Doc," Joe praised, figuring that once the redness was gone, the thin white line of a scar that remained would be virtually invisible.

"I am so glad you approve, Joseph. Now onto to the other things at hand here today, literally. How are your hands doing? I saw you wiggling the fingers on your right hand earlier. Any pain?"

He considered his standard line of 'fine' and wondered if it would work again, given the circumstances. Joe chewed on his lower lip before answering the direct stare the doctor was giving him. "Some. But none that I can't handle. This one," and he raised his right hand,"it just feels like its cramping. You know, like you've held onto to something too tight for too long. Like that?"

Paul Martin took the plaster-covered limb into his own hands and looked it over for signs of the plaster breaking or weakening. He saw none. He had half-way expected by now to see Joe using his casts as battering rams to get what he wanted.

"Okay, well I have an idea that might help you out, Joseph. But before I go into it, I want your promise that you will continue to do just what I tell you to. Do I have it?"

Joe gave him the same sort of smile that usually got him his way with just about anyone.

"I'm serious, Joe. You have got to do it this way or both of your hands are going to suffer for it." As he spoke, the doctor saw the mirth leave the green eyes. "Okay, I'm going to take the cast off the right one and replace it with one so that you can have the use of your thumb on that hand. That way you can grasp things a little better. But the same lecture goes with this cast as it did with the first one. No lifting any thing heavier than a fork, no pulling and no pushing. Got that?"

Two hours later, Joe was enjoying the freedom a thumb can give. He already had visions of being able to eat and drink by himself, dress himself and brush his own hair. It was like he had grown from an infant into adulthood in that slender time space.

"What about the left one, Doc? Can we get the thumb out of there too?" Joe pushed and instantly saw it was a mistake by just the dark look the doctor gave him. "Okay, okay, I can take the hint. I'm satisfied for now with what I've got."

"Probably not, but I will take what I can get with you, young man. Now we've done this for more than just one reason. I want you eating better than you have been. I also want to see you getting out of this room a little more often. And no I don't mean like that little stunt you and your brothers pulled the other day. One fall and you could have put yourself right back to square one with those ribs."

"But it wasn't my idea-" Joe protested, not for the first time but no one believed that he was a "victim".

"I don't really care whose idea it was, it had all the potential for disaster as far as I could see. Speaking of disasters, how's your knee feel this morning?"

Just that quickly, the old Joe Cartwright was back in full fettle. "Fine," was his terse response.

Chapter Five:  To stand alone one must first stand up

Roy Coffee didn't need a haircut or a shave. But he liked sitting in Sam's Barbershop, listening to town gossip. Many's the time he would get his first whiff of trouble sitting there in one of Sam's chairs. Other times it would just be the same old discussions of weather, politics or the latest saloon girl down at the Silver Dollar.  It didn't matter to the sheriff what he heard, it seemed. He would store away information the same way a squirrel would nuts for the coming winter, ready to pull it out and use it when the time came. So as he sat in one of the chairs that afternoon he was listening to James G. Fair and his son Brian arguing about an upcoming social at the Grange Hall. Young Brian wanted to go and his father seemed most intent that he not.  The whole discussion reminded Roy of several he had heard years ago involving a certain young Cartwright wanting to go into town and his father being of a different persuasion. And that conversation had been held right in this same barbershop too. Roy chuckled to himself.

Brian was not one for sitting still during an argument, even if it was with his father. Sam was having enough trouble with the boy's hair anyway and with him squirming, it just made it all the more difficult to cut the fine blonde locks. Finally, in a fit of exasperation, Sam took a hold of both sides of the boy's head to hold him steady. The boy yelped in pain and Sam 's hands dropped to his sides, his eyes popping. He hadn't grasped the boy that hard!

James Fair was instantly to his son, pulling his son's hands down from where they had flown to one side of his head.

"You incompetent imbecile. Look what you've done!" Fair was screaming as he saw the blood coming through his son's fingers. He snatched up a towel from the barber's table and pulling Brian's hands down, pressed it against the boy's head.

"But Mr. Fair, I didn't do nothing. Why, my clippers were in my other hand. I think your boy there had a cut or something on his head a'forehand." Sam explained as Roy slipped over closer to the father and his son.

Roy reached out and gently pulled the towel down to reveal a gash in the boy's head. But it wasn't a new one, rather one several days old that should have been stitched closed but wasn't. Now it had opened up and was bleeding profusely.

"How's you get that cut on your head, Brian?" Roy took careful note of the young man, seeing fading bruises on the side of the boy's cheek. The backs of both hands bore more than a few scraps and an ugly bruise. You'd think he'd been in a fight, the sheriff thought but then chided himself that Brain Fair didn't do that sort of thing and besides he was just a boy.

"The sheriff asked you a question, young man, now answer him!" the elder Fair roared, grabbing at his son's arm.

"I was wrestling with some of the other boys and we just got carried away, I guess." The boy looked sullenly into his lap while Roy continued to stare at the back of his head.

"What boys? And don't lie to me, young man. Whoever these boys are, they are going to have to answer to me. Why didn't you tell me about this before? These boys are obviously not you age, are they?"

Brian bit down on his lower lip, wanting to keep silent. But his father's grasp on his arm hurt. "It was just the Taylor boys and Si Kingsley and a couple others." He purposely left out the other two names involved in the fight. Johnny Kincaid because he knew his father did not approve of the likes of the older boy. And, for more obvious reasons, Joe Cartwright.

"When did you do this, Brian? Looks like it’s a couple days old. Somethin' this serious should have been seen to. Fact is, I think we need to have Doc Martin take a look at it now." And just the authoritative sound to Roy Coffee's voice told father and son that he would stand for no argument.

While the nervous father and wary sheriff waited in the small anteroom for Doc Martin to finish patching up young Brian Fair, James Fair kept repeating the same litany: he wanted the other boys arrested. It obviously wasn't the way Brian had described it and he wanted the ones found and held responsible.

Roy Coffee held his own council silent. Something just didn't fit in this whole puzzle. There was something missing or a wrong piece. And until he had a chance to talk to the doctor, he wasn't about to say anything to James Fair.

Finally, Paul Martin stepped into the anteroom and wiping his hands on a towel, told Fair he could see his son. Roy quickly closed the door and pulled the doctor aside.
It was a toss up to see who was more anxious to speak to the other.

"That head wound didn't come from a fist fight, Roy. And it's deep enough that it had to have been done with considerable force and with an edged object. And it looks to me to be about ten days old." Paul Martin quickly summed up his findings and watched as Roy stroked his chin in thought.

"Fell and hit his head on a rock or something?" Roy postulated, playing the devil's advocate. He and Paul Martin had linked talents many times before and this role shifted from one to the other with ease and without forethought.

"Wrong angle. The cut goes from the top down. If he fell onto a rock it would be either straight across or from bottom to top. No, this came from someone doing this," and demonstrated. Standing in front of the sheriff, the doctor raised his right hand and took a downward slicing motion at the back of his friend's head.

"An edged object you said?" Roy squinted one eye almost closed. "You sure?"
"A blunt object wouldn't have cut it so cleanly. A knife would have made a smaller wound. No, it was something with an edge to it but not a knife."

"Doc, you know what I'm thinkin'?" Paul Martin nodded in agreement. "Your object that hit young master Fair, could it have been a picture frame? A heavy gold or silver frame?"

"Yes, it could have, Roy. And I think we both surmise whose hand was wielding it. Now how do we go about proving it?"

"Can you hold the boy here while I round up a few things?  I need to ride out to the Ponderosa.  Then I'll stop in over to the International House for a chat with another of your patients."

Paul Martin laid a companionable hand on the sheriff's arm. "If I can handle Joseph Cartwright, I can slow down Brian Fair." He turned to go back into the treatment room, knowing Roy Coffee could find his own way out.

Three hours later, the constable was back in the doctor's office, carrying a cloth bag and with Ben and Joseph Cartwright in tow. Roy had wanted to leave them where he had found them, but they weren't hearing of it. Finally a compromise was made: the two Cartwrights would simply wait in the anteroom for the young boy to appear. If Joe recognized him, he would cough. If not…no harm, no foul. But secretly, Roy Coffee was leaning towards the cough.

Hearing his outer door open, Paul Martin stepped out of the treatment room where the Fairs sat, young Brian still groggy from the medication the doctor had given him before suturing closed the head wound his father found so grievous.  Always the doctor first, he quickly appraised the appearance of the youngest Cartwright and knew for once the answer to his question would be close to the truth: the young man appeared fine, all things considered.

"Ben, Joe," he greeted just loud enough for the occupants in the other room to hear him. Stepping closer, he took the proffered bag from Roy and opened it. There in the bag was just what he knew he would find: the bent picture frame from Ben Cartwright's desk. He gestured with his head for Roy to follow him into the other room.

Ben had felt more than heard Joe's breathing grow rapid when they walked into the doctor's office. At first he thought it was just Joe's reaction to walking into the hated doctor's office but then Ben realized that Joe was more agitated than usual. He placed a restraining hand to his son's shoulder when the doctor and the sheriff disappeared into the treatment room and James Fair came out. There was just a glimpse of a young blonde haired boy but Ben felt his youngest son tremble beneath his hand. He quickly pushed Joseph towards the chair in the corner of the room and positioned himself between Fair and Joe. There was an insane and irrational fear Ben felt. Even though he had no reason to think that either his son or Fair would do anything to one another, he felt the rise of protectiveness and couldn't fight it.

James Fair on the other hand, just nodded to the two Cartwrights. He knew them both but they were not of his circle of friends. He had heard about what had recently happened out at the ranch and then again when Ben had accosted Carolyn Adkins in the International House Restaurant. He doubted whether he had heard the truth about either situation but it didn't concern him, he told himself. What did concern him was his son and the doctor had been adamant about him leaving the room while the doctor looked the boy over again before turning him loose.

Behind the closed door, Roy Coffee took the picture frame from the cloth sack behind Brian and with the doctor's help, pulled aside the lush fine blonde hair to reveal the long gash. Both older men saw the same thing: the gash was just as wide as the damage done to one edge of the silver frame.

"You want to tell me again what happened to your head, Brian?" Roy urged the boy.

"I told you, the Taylor boys and Si and I were wrestlin' and it got a little out of hand is all. Can I go now Doc Martin?" he explained, his sluggish voice rising in anger.
Over the boy's head, Roy gave a brief nod and the doctor helped the lad from the table and opened the door into the other room.

"Will you come on, Brian? Your mother will be worried sick about us. We should have been home hours ago. Come on, boy!" James Fair loudly castigated the boy, hauling on one young arm to hurry him along.

In the corner, Joe Cartwright coughed once then silence filled the room as Roy Coffee stepped up beside the young Fair boy and stopped him and his father.

"No, you're not going home this afternoon, Brian." Roy pulled the boy back from his father's grasp. "You need to come down with me to the jail."

James Fair reared back all of his six-foot frame and glared at the sheriff. "Just what do you mean by that?"

"I mean that I am arresting your son for assault and battery and malicious destruction of property. I found what cut your young'un's head open, Mr. Fair and it weren't another boy." And as if to demonstrate, hefted the heavy silver object he had been carrying in his other hand.

Fair saw the frame, the damage done on one corner. "Just who does it belong to then? And how did it hurt my son?" he roared, reaching for it.

Behind him, Ben felt Joe lunge for the scene before him and was only able to just barely stop him. As he held his son, Ben could feel the anger course through him, making his slender body shake as a leaf in a strong wind.

In his hand, James Fair turned the frame over and looked into the eyes of a long dead woman. As he held the heavy silver frame, Marie Cartwright looked back at him. Wordlessly, he looked at the woman he had known but briefly then handed it back to the sheriff.

"I don't know what sort of witch hunt you are on, Cartwright, but you would do best to leave my son and I out of it," he addressed Ben then looked to the sheriff once more. "I don't believe you have enough evidence to hold my son, so I would ask that you drop this preposterous charade an let me take my son home, Sheriff Coffee."  He reached for the boy's shoulder, but found Roy Coffee more than adamant about his prisoner.

"No sir, the boy has to come with me down to the jail. A complaint has been filed and I have to see that the boy stands trial seein's how he has been identified as one of the ones responsible."

Fair exploded in anger. "By who? The Cartwright's yellow houseboy?"

"No, by me! I saw him there that afternoon. I fought with him. While he and some of his 'friends' held me down, I picked up that and hit him with it!" Joe's voiced crested in anger and he would have gone after the boy before him if Ben hadn't had a hand on him, holding him back.

"I don't know what you are after Cartwright…"

"I am after justice, Mr. Fair, simple justice," Ben spoke for the first time.

"Fine," Fair screamed, pulling his son to him, "Sheriff, arrest him!" and he jerked his head to where Joe Cartwright stood shaking in his father's hands, anger darkening his face like the bruises before hadn't.."Arrest Joe Cartwright. You just heard him admit to attacking my son."

Roy Coffee looked at both fathers, both struggling to hold their sons. A blind man could have seen the anger in Joseph Cartwright and the fear in Brian Fair and Roy wasn't blind. But the fear in Brian Fair's eyes was that of a child caught out in a wild tale as he kept glancing up at his father's face, judging his reaction. "Papa, save me from him. Please Papa," the boy kept saying over and over, but none of it rang true to him

"It sounded to me like he was saying your son was attacking him, Mr. Fair. But I think the best way of handling this is down at my office. If you will escort your son there, Mr. Fair. I will be right along."

"What about him?" James Fair seethed and jerked his head in the direction of the Cartwrights.

"I'm gonna send them back to the hotel. Ben, you keep your hand on this boy o' yours till you get to that room over yonder. I'll be over directly," explained the sheriff, once again, taking young Brian Fair's arm, pushing him towards the door.

"I can see how this is going to go down!" roared Fair. "You haul my son off to jail on a suspicion but yet Cartwright goes free on an admission."

"Mr. Fair, I suggest you shut up. There's laws in this state that I uphold. One of them is caring for an injured prisoner as I see fit. Joe Cartwright has been in poor shape and under a doctor's care for some time and I see fit for him to go back to his hotel room and wait there so's the doctor can see to him. Now young Brian here has been seen by the Doc and has been released, so he's going down to the jail. We can talk about bail down there. Now come along." Roy was finally able to get the boy out the door, albeit he was using more force than he would have normally thought necessary.

Once the door to the doctor's office closed, Ben turned loose of Joe. He narrowed his eyes and glared at his youngest, letting him feel his wrath.

"Just what was that little display all about? You are in no shape to be tackling anyone, much less a teenage boy!"

Paul Martin thought about stepping in. His long practiced eye saw Joe's body pulling to the left and the injured ribs and damaged knee. If he intervened now, he was sure that either one of the Cartwrights would bite his head clean off. He would simply stay close and wait it out.

"You said you want justice, Pa. Well not nearly as bad as I do. Especially now. You saw that kid, manipulating his father. Justice? A judge is gonna look at that little monster and see just a kid. And the kid is gonna turn his tears loose on the court and walk away. I know it!  I can feel it!  Just like with that kid Hop Sing pegged down in the restaurant. Did Roy arrest him? No! Why? Because everybody is looking at them as kids, children. Justice, Pa? Somehow or another, I know that the law is going to turn them loose because they are children. And where will the justice be in that?"

"We do not take the law into our own hands, Joseph," Ben cautioned and Paul Martin was surprised to hear the quietness of his voice but he noticed Joe's eyes flare in anger. He saw Joe's upraised arms, heavy and useless, but suddenly they appeared more like tools of destruction.

"No, those kids pretty much took that away from me, Pa. But not for forever and you can't, and Roy can't, keep me locked away long enough for me to forget what I've seen and heard."

In one swift move, Ben had gathered the two imprisoned hands together between his own large callused ones and held them tight.

"Promise me, Joseph, that you will do nothing to endanger any possible investigation of Roy's. That you will let him handle this the best way he sees fit." Joe gave one shake of his head 'no' and tried to pull his hands away from his father's grasp. "No, promise me, Joseph, that you will let the law and the courts deal with this madness." And again Joe tried to pull away from his father. Firmer of voice now, Ben held tight. "Promise me!" It was as strong a demand as Paul Martin had ever heard from his old friend. He couldn't see Ben's face but knew from the look on Joe's that there was a tremendous battle being waged silently before him. Finally, although there was no physical sign, no drop of the shoulders, nor change of stance, just a mere flicker of movement in the corner of one eye, Joe relented and Ben dropped his son's hands.

"Just until the trial is over." Joe's whispered response had a very menacing undercurrent of a promise his father had not asked for. He brushed by his father and left him standing alone.

By early afternoon the following day, all of Virginia City was in an uproar. Roy Coffee had not only arrested and jailed Brian Fair but also the two sons of Judge Anthony Taylor. There was talk that others would soon join them but no one knew who or when. The outrage that swept through the town was like a wildfire, burning nearly out of control, until it became a conflagration at the door to Roy Coffee's jail. He stepped out onto the porch, and raised his hand to quiet the mass of people he saw before him.

"This is a travesty of justice, Coffee. Turn those boys loose!" one woman shouted before Roy could even speak.

"Those young men have been charged with a pretty serious crime. Assault and battery as well as destruction of property. They are gonna have to stay right where they are until we can get another judge in here to set bail. Then they are gonna have to stand trial. Now you folks go on about your business-"

"This is our business, Sheriff. Word has it that you're looking for two other boys. Is that so?" another shouted, a man in the back who Roy recognized as a father of two sons himself.

"Well, there might be. I ain't in the habit of telling -"

"No just in the habit of doin' what Ben Cartwright tells you to!" accused a voice off to one side and the murmur of assent flickered through the crowd.

"I follow the law and it don't matter who tells me what. I do what the law tells me." Roy felt he was quickly losing control over the mob and was sorry that he hadn't thought to have Clem with a shotgun to back him up. "And the law says that I need to hold these young men for a judge." And again the crowd surged towards him, just short of coming onto the planks of the broad sidewalk.

The aid that came to him was from a totally unexpected source. Judge Taylor stepped up beside him and turned to face the crowd with him. He held up his hands for silence and was immediately rewarded with it.

"Folks, now you know that I am just as upset, if not more so, than lots of you. Why two of the boys he's holding are my own. But if we give in to this hysteria, we are no better than the ones who are truly guilty of what these boys have been accused of.  I am sure that all of this is going to be sorted out real soon so you all go back to your homes and children and rest assured that no one is going to come snatch them in the night."

The crowd shifted and stirred, some turning away, some holding fast.

Once again the judge raised his voice but this time he addressed the sheriff beside him. "Isn't that right, Sheriff?"

"Like I said, Judge, I do what the law tells me to." Although Roy had welcomed the help the judge gave him, he was not sure where that same help would lead him should he follow.

Finally the crowd began to slowly disperse. Roy Coffee stood his ground, the judge still at his side. When the last had turned their back, Roy turned for his office, only to be stopped by Taylor's hand on his arm.

"We need to talk, sheriff. I have telegraphed the governor and asked that he send down another judge to hear this case but I want to meet with the district attorney as well. And I want you there as an impartial witness so to speak. Will you do that for me?"

Roy narrowed his gray eyes as he listened to the judge, all the while trying to figure what his angle was. "When is your meeting with the district attorney?" he asked, stroking his chin, hoping to buy a little more time to get a confession out of just one of the boys he held in his jail cell.

The judge gave him an oily smile and said "Soon," then turned away, headed down the street, leaving Roy to wonder what had just truly happened.

For those who had the most to fear, there was a certainty: one of them had told. The Taylor brothers, in the cells behind the sheriff's office, suspected that that it had been Simon Kingsley but had been unable to discuss it, held in cells across from one another as they were. Brian Fair, also held but also apart from the others felt certain it had also been Kingsley. He had always been the weakest link in their chain. As dusk fell that evening, there was a hissing from just outside Brian's cell window. The Fair boy looked at the others and his glance warned them to stay silent. He climbed onto the bunk and strained on tiptoes to look out. He saw Johnny in the last rays of sunlight against the far wall.

"Get Si, you understand?" he directed and Johnny ran from sight.

He clambered back down just as the deputy came in, holding a tray with their dinners. Immediately the three became little boys, changing their looks of assuredness for one of abject youth.

Down two alleys and across a back street, Johnny strolled, hoping not to draw attention to himself and succeeding. He slipped into the Adkins back yard and climbed the tree that would give him access to Simon's window. As luck would have it, Simon was there, washing up it looked like, preparing for his own dinner. He went to the window when he heard his name hissed.

"Who did you tell, Kingsley? How much did you tell 'em?" Johnny accused.

"I didn't tell anyone, Johnny, I swear it. Listen I been holed up here with Aunt Carolyn since the Sheriff talked to me. I didn't say nothin'!" he whimpered. He had to make Johnny believe him, fearing the bigger boy just as much as he did Brian Fair but for a whole different reason. Where he feared the mercurial wrath of Brian, the cold look in Johnny's eyes was always there and he had seen Johnny in action one too many times to doubt what the older boy would and could do. After all, it had been his ideas that had brought them all to this junction as it was. And it had been Johnny who had first attacked Joe Cartwright with a knife.

"Then why did the Sheriff go get Morgan and Jeremy?"

"He took Brian first. Maybe Brian told," the younger boy tried to reason.

"No, if Brian told on Morgan and Jeremy, why ain't you in jail with 'em? I tell you why, 'cause you told what you knew, you little rat. And it's just a matter of time before the Sheriff comes after me, ain't it? Well, I ain't like them other boys. I can hide but you better watch your back, Si, cause the first step you take out of that house, I'm gonna get you, you hear me?" With that threat made, Johnny slithered down the tree just as Carolyn Adkins opened her nephew's door, calling him for dinner. All she saw was a shaken white-faced boy.

"Why Simon, what ever in the world is wrong? You are as white as a ghost!" she gasped, laying her hand against the boy's forehead and gazing into his eyes, aghast.

"He, he, he threatened me. Said he was gonna get me!" the boy stammered, his eyes still glazed with fear, his heart hammering in his chest.

"Who did Simon? Who threatened you?" asked the aunt softly, gathering the trembling child into her arms.

The boy's stammer increased tenfold, afraid to say the name that would surely bring down the wrath of the heavens. "J-J-J-J-" was the only sound he could get out.

Carolyn Adkins fell back, her hand pressing momentarily to her throat before she leapt to her feet screaming for her maid and leaving Simon's room. He could hear her screaming for the sheriff then heard the front door slam open and her voice shrieking in the street.

He was totally numb now. The secret he had held tight to was slipping through his fingers like sand. Outside, as if from a long distance, he could hear his aunt's voice calling for the sheriff. Stiffly, he went to the top of the back stairs and scurried down them, powered by the unseen forces of guilt and fear. He slipped out the back door and into the carriage house.

It seemed like an eternity to Carolyn Adkins before Roy Coffee came to her parlor when in actuality it had been just a few minutes.

"I want him arrested, sheriff," she demanded without preamble.

"Who am I arresting, Miz Adkins?" he asked, hat slowly turning in his hands.

"Joseph Cartwright is who. He has threatened Simon. I want him arrested," repeated the woman, disdain dripping from her words.

"Now when did he do that?" It sounded so incredulous to Roy, he had to shake his head. "Let me speak to Simon. May I?"

"Of course," and she directed the maid to go to Simon's room and bring him down.

The maid returned with the information that he was not in his room. Carolyn Adkins felt her worst nightmare seemed to be coming true. A quick search of the house by Roy and the maid turned up no boy and he was about to tell the maid to stay with Carolyn when a light caught his eye. He stepped into the back of the house and saw where it came from: the carriage house behind the house was ablaze.

In the streets beyond, the cry of "Fire" arose in one voice then another and another. Roy stood transfixed by the flames there in the backyard. In the center of the flames he saw only one thing: the small body of a young boy swaying from a rafter, a rope around his neck until the fire consumed the rope and the body fell into the waiting flames. He didn't need to be told that the body was that Simon Kingsley.

Virginia City was stunned. Even though the steady late summer breeze from out of the mountains blew away quickly the scent of burnt wood, the pall that lay upon the town was as thick as the smoke had been. Because of the quick action by the town's volunteer fire brigade, the flames had only taken the Adkins carriage house. But that was enough. The news had spread quickly about the boy. Carolyn Adkins had taken to her bed, unable to cope and gossips only told the parts of the story they wanted to tell. How she had supposedly overheard her nephew threatened by Joseph Cartwright. How she had demanded the arrest of Joseph Cartwright. So if the townspeople had been upset before,now they were truly livid.

The part they didn't tell was that at the same time he was supposedly threatening the boy, Joe Cartwright was with both Doc Martin and Roy Coffee in the his hotel suite with his father also present.

"I don't understand it, Pa," Adam murmured. He and his father were on the veranda overlooking the town, the late afternoon sun drawing long shadows down the streets. "The people of Virginia City have been our friends and neighbors for years. We have helped them all time and time again. Had lots of them out to the house for parties. Been to their homes, too. So why, all of a sudden, do they turn on us?"

"Look down there, Adam," and Ben gestured with a lift of his chin to the busy street below. "How many of those people do you know?"

"I see what you mean," he said after looking over quite a few faces and not recognizing any of them. "I might have seen them around town but I don't know any of them." He perched on the railing, crossing his arms across his chest and turning his back to the scene beyond. "We need to rethink some things then, Pa."

"Like what?" Ben asked, but unlike Adam, he still studied the faces below, looking for ones he would recognize.

"I think we need to get you and Hop Sing and Joe home, back to the ranch. If this gets ugly, Pa…" and he let the rest of the thought die unfinished.

Ben heaved a deep sigh and pursed his lips. He studied his oldest son, looking for answers as he always did from his most insightful of sons.

"What shape is the house in, son?" he finally asked quietly, glancing into the room behind him for his other two sons, not wanting to be overheard.

"Pretty empty still but I still think it would be better than here in town if things started getting out of hand."

"And just how are things going to get out of hand?" Adam recognized the tone his father used as the one he usually reserved for dealing with his little brother as a miscreant: a very dismissing tone. "Sure, lots of these people are upset about the boy dying like he did and some are talking…"

"Pa, they are talking about whose fault it is-"

"Your brother was right in that room -" Ben's voice rose as he flung his arm back towards the rooms behind them.

"You know that, I know that, hell, Pa, even Roy Coffee knows that. But the simple fact of the matter is that most of those people down there, don't know that. The Territorial Enterprise's story didn't leave much doubt about it either. But, Pa, lots of those people down there hold us responsible for that boy's death, whether one of us was there or not."

"And just how can they do that?"

"Everyone in town thinks the main reason for you and Joe and Hop Sing being in town is to spot the boys who tore up the house and beat them up. They think you are on a 'witch hunt', grabbing any boy that even comes close to matching Joe's description. Now tell me the truth, Pa. That is part of the reason you’re here. And you are looking for revenge just as much as the rest of us are, Pa." By the time Adam had finished, he was toe to toe with his father, his voice just as tight with anger.

"NO!" Ben roared the single word and passer-bys down below paused then went quickly on. He gathered himself, trying to control his temper, but he was shaking with the effort. The animal he had fought to tame in his own breast, the one wanting an eye for an eye, clawed at him, seeking release. "How many times do I have to say it? We let the law handle this. No matter what. We are not a pack of bloodthirsty vigilantes intent on making some one pay for what they might have done. We let the law handle it."

"I'm not talking about 'making someone pay', Pa. I couldn't even begin to give you a figure on what it's taking to put things back in order in the house. But I can ask for some sort of justice for the pain they inflicted on my little brother and Hop Sing. Justice? That's just another term for revenge, isn't it? Justice is when a whole lot of people know you are right. Revenge is when you know you are right. The only difference is in the numbers."

"That's it! I have had enough talk about revenge! Of justice gone wrong! I have heard it from all of you and as long as I stand as the head of this family, there will be no more talk of it! Do you understand?" Ben's voice was heavy with authority, his eyes glaring at his eldest son, boring into him. Once more, he looked back over his shoulder into the hotel suite. There was no doubt that Hoss and Joe had heard but they stayed head down, focused on a checkerboard between them.

"That's all the more reason to leave town, Pa. Take away any possible opportunity for a problem to develop." Adam would not be swayed now. Protecting his family, all the members of his family, was paramount.

"What do you mean?" Ben hissed, tucking his thumbs into his pockets. If he hadn't of done that, he felt sure he would have lashed out at Adam's first words, his edginess was so raw.

"How long do you think Joe is going to stay under control? Joe is recovering pretty fast. Getting stronger and getting his feet back under him more and more every day. The only thing that is stopping him now are those casts on his arms. And that may not hold him back much longer. No, Pa, we need to get him as far away as we can right now or he is gonna start prowling the streets, looking for that other boy. And Virginia City isn't going to like him doing that. Nor what he is liable to do when he finds him."  Or when I find him. Get us all away from here Pa, so we can settle down and all of us heal. Joe especially. Then maybe I can.

Ben looked over his shoulder into the brightly-lit room behind him. It was plain that his other sons and Hop Sing had heard the discussion for all three now were watching him. He took a deep breath and held it. As he did so, he looked to Hoss' face. There, openly written was a plea identical the Adam's. The expression on Hop Sing's face was one full of hope. But for once, the countenance he couldn't read was Joseph's. His face remained blank, his eyes, normally so keenly articulate, said nothing. But the fingers of his right hand, barely visible, flexed ever so slightly. Adam was right. Only the cast kept Joe from turning that hand into a fist. The pent-up breath eased from Ben like a low moan.

"Bring the surrey in when you come back tomorrow morning. I don't want Joseph trying to ride yet." And once again Ben looked back out over the town, the red orange sunlight looking more and more like the flames of an all-consuming fire.

Chapter Six: A decision made to lie should be considered a lie as well

During the three weeks since he had returned to his realm in the Cartwright kitchen, Hop Sing had grown more at ease with his surroundings. To say that he completely at home would have been a lie.  There were still times when he felt lost within the familiar yet strange confines. It was then that he would simply walk away from it all, out into the garden that lay beyond the yard. For a while he would pull weeds, or loosen the soil. This late in the summer, he had an astounding amount of fresh vegetables there that needed his attention daily. And he found solace in the garden as well. When he had first seen the plot, his heart had plummeted, thinking that it had been destroyed as well but soon found that it had been untouched by vandals. Unless you wanted to call Time a vandal. For days he had worked steadfastly, pulling weeds and righting plants left unattended while he had been away. Now he was satisfied with it.

Humming a long forgotten tune, Hop Sing was picking green beans, pleased that they were producing well, despite their lack of care. He nearly had his basket full when he straightened up to see Ben headed for him.

"Pick plenty beans. Have enough to feed even Hoss enough tonight for dinner!" he exclaimed, proud of his accomplishment. Not of the garden but for his returning capability with a language different from his native one.

"I see you have, Hop Sing. And that is just what I wanted to ask you about. Dinner." Ben reached into Hop Sing's basket, fingering the beans there. "Do you suppose you could find enough out here to feed a few extra guests for dinner?"

"How many are few extra?" he asked, his almond eyes narrowing with the question. With the Cartwrights, a 'few extras' could mean two or two dozen. It never hurt to make sure of the head count before he committed himself.

"Just Roy Coffee and the district attorney, Case Bradley. They are up there talking with Joe and it looks like it may be a while. Thought we should invite them to eat with us," Ben explained, nibbling on a bean he had just filched.

"Not if you eat all." Hop Sing snatched the basket away even though Ben's hands were nowhere near it. "What they talk to my Little Joe about?" he asked.

Ben thought of how he could answer the cook's question. And he hadn't missed the fact that Hop Sing had just referred to Joe as 'his Little Joe'. "Well, the trial is due to start soon and the district attorney wanted to go over some things with my Little Joe," he finally answered, emphasizing the last three words.

Hop Sing grunted just once then headed into the house, a long string of singsong Chinese following him, directed with flourishing hands towards no one in particular. Ben had the distinct impression that the little man was not being kind to him at the moment but he had no real facts to go on.

Once in the kitchen, Hop Sing immediately began the preparations for making coffee.  He also checked and found that Adam had left some gingerbread on the sideboard. Hop Sing's attention, however, was not on what he was doing. It more centered on the voices he heard coming from the living room. Once the coffee was done, he filled the ornate carafe, placed it with the cups and saucers and the slices of gingerbread on the large serving tray and made his way into the main room.

"And that's when they used the knife on you?" the stranger was asking as Hop Sing placed the tray on the square table before Joe, nodding a silent greeting to Roy Coffee. Hop Sing poured coffee in the cups he had brought and handed them one by one to the stranger and Roy Coffee. Joe waved his away when Hop Sing offered it but softly asked Hop Sing to stay-in Chinese. The other two men simply believed Joe had thanked the little cook for his kindness. They all saw his head bob once and Hop Sing stepped back from the others but stayed near.

He watched and listened, making no move to intervene or speak up as he listened to Joe being questioned. Early on, he had made up his mind that he didn't like the man asking the questions, Case Bradley.  He understood perfectly why they were doing what they were. He just didn't like the aggressive tone the man used. Finally there came the question Hop Sing knew Joe couldn't answer on his own.

"And you are positive that the boys that attacked you that day were the Taylors, Brian Fair and Simon Kingsley?" Bradley pressed and watched the young man before him. He was impressed with him. The man had never wavered once while he had grilled him over and over again. Even on the most minute of facts. One thing was becoming evident to the attorney: the young man was still not in good enough shape to stand the rigors of testifying in court. As testament to that fact, he had just closed his eyes and leaned back in the straight back chair he sat in. Bradley was afraid that perhaps he had overtaxed the young man.

Hop Sing had seen the movement and was instantly to Joe's side, his face a portrait of concern. He and Joe briefly spoke in Chinese one to the other before Hop Sing moved away.

The wry smile Joe gave the sheriff and the lawyer was small, but there. "It's like having to deal with a houseful of over-protective mother hens some times," he quipped, seeming to dismiss it all. "You asked if I were positive about who attacked us? Yes, I am, Mr. Bradley. And there was one other boy with them. Him, I would know on sight since he was the one with the knife. But as for the others - I'm positive."

Case Bradley made a few more notes then closed his portfolio and put the pencil into an inside pocket. "I think that about does it, Joseph. If I have any more questions, I'll be sure to let you know.  As for now, trial is set to start next Wednesday morning. Think you are up to it?"

"No one wants to see this over and done with any sooner than I do, Mr. Bradley. I'll be there." Joe leveled his gaze at the man, letting him feel his conviction as well as hear it.

"You realize that I can get a motion for a delay without any problem. And I do think, considering your health at the moment, that I may do so." The attorney had to test the resolve he saw.

"I said that I will be there and I will." Case Bradley saw the green eyes flash with anger. He nodded and stood to leave, Roy Coffee mimicking him. Joe stood also, slightly favoring one side still, and moved with them to the door and out onto the porch where his father sat.

As the attorney went to the buggy tied to the side hitching rail, Roy took a moment to study Joe up one side and down the other. Softly, touching the boy's shoulder to get his attention, Roy turned Joe's face from where the attorney could see him clearly. He whispered, "I have never known you to lie, Joseph Cartwright, but I just heard you, didn't I?"

"I said I would be there Roy and I will!" Joe shot back quietly but sharply as well.

"That wasn't what I was referring to, boy. I meant about identifyin' those boys."

"You heard what I said, Roy. Those boys are guilty and I will testify to that," Joe hissed.

"I'm sure you will. But I just want to make sure it is from first hand knowledge. I want them that's guilty too, Joe, but I want it fair and square. Do I make myself clear?" and patting the young man on the arm, Roy Coffee went on out the buggy and left with just a wave of the hand.

"I was going to ask them to stay for dinner." Ben stood shaking his head at the sudden change of events. He had the impression that something hadn't gone the way it was expected. "What was Roy talking to you about, Joe?"

"Nothin', Pa."

As Ben watched, he saw the motion he had grown to hate during the past few weeks: Joe's fingers curling tightly around the edge of his cast.

"Well, I see that coming home has improved your spirits, Joe," Paul Martin exclaimed as he caught the perturbed wince from his patient. Yes, the spirit was returning but the problem with his left knee remained. Then "Wiggle your fingers for me. Any pain?" he asked, watching the right hand carefully. The fingers moved well and he saw the crack lines running through the plaster on both the palm side as well as the backside of Joe's casted right hand. He checked the left one surreptitiously. From what he could tell, the plaster remained undamaged on that one. That surprised him and pleased him all the same.

"Doc, that trial starts tomorrow. Can't we take this one off?" and Joe gestured to the right hand. "After all, it's been almost six weeks."

Paul Martin chuckled out loud. "You don't give up easy, do you, son? What would you do if I did? And think hard before you answer that question."

Joe pretended to mull the query over in great detail, looking first to the ceiling then to the floor. "Well, I kind of like the idea of being able to dress myself. At my age, it's touch embarrassing, you know, to have to have someone else do things for you."

"Not a good enough answer."

Joe thought a little more but before he could come up with an answer he thought would earn him his desired reward, the doctor came up with a list of his own. "Eat better? Rest a little easier? And more often than what your father says you are. How about that for starters?" There was one person in the world who viewed himself as untouchable by Joseph Cartwright charm. And that person was Doctor Paul Martin, M.D. But with the dazzling smile the young Cartwright gave him just then, he was beginning to think he was loosing that status. "Okay, off it comes but with some guidelines. First, you go easy with that hand. Gently exercise it. Work at getting the strength back in that hand and arm. Don't expect it to be there just because the cast is gone. Second, if I even catch a whisper about you doing anything you know better than doing, I am gonna smack that cast right back on it. Understand?"

The doctor and Joe were still working at soaking the plaster off his hand when Ben came in the house later that afternoon.

"I told you to not put so much on it in the first place," he heard his son chiding the good doctor before he even rounded the corner into the dining area. There, his right hand and arm laid on a wet towel, Joe sat as Paul pulled at the damp plaster.

"Just be still, young man or I'll put another on in its place!" With a final last tug, the plaster fell away completely. Relieved if its weight, Joe's arm raised off the table, wrinkled and pale. Doc Martin grabbed it and began a slow stimulating massage that brought a quick grimace to Joe's face when he got to the hand. "That hurt?" the doctor asked quickly, feeling the little used muscles tense beneath his fingers.

"No," but Joe swallowed hard anyway.

Ben chuckled then strolled over to watch the proceedings. He let his own hand fall across Joe's shoulder and half held him as though Joe were going to pull away from the doctor's ministrations.  It wouldn't be the first time he tried to run off from Paul, Ben thought and chuckled aloud at the thought. That brought Joe's face up to look at his father, the green eyes questioning but Ben just shook his head 'no', the smile still on his lips. Joe returned his attention to what the doctor was doing but Ben felt the tension begin to drain from under his hand as Joe relaxed.

"Look. Pa. I gotta a hand.  Looks more like a prune right now."

All three men chuckled again and Paul let the hand go, satisfied that it had healed well.

"How long before he can chop wood?" Adam asked, coming into the house just then and hearing the good news.

Hoss had heard it as well and right behind Adam's remark came Hoss' "Yeah, we got tons of chores piling up. When can we expect him to start pulling his weight again? Granted it ain't much to be pulled."

Joe opened his mouth for a quick rejoiner but closed it just as quickly when he caught the doctor's pointed glance at the remains of the now removed cast. That set them all off laughing again.

Paul Martin shook his head in wonder. This was a family like none other he had ever met. The luxuries this young man had grown up with all but gone, the house just a shell now but they, all of them, had the capacity to laugh at such a minor thing.  The devastation that he had seen there that first night, both physically and emotionally, he thought that perhaps it was beginning finally to heal, just as Joe's hands were. But then he saw something that perhaps the rest of the family did not. The first motion Joe made with his hand was a fist. The doctor immediately grabbed the hand back, thinking at first that it was a cramp but Joe released the clenched hand just as abruptly. There was no mirth in the green eyes that bore into him and Paul Martin would wonder forever after that if he hadn't made a bad decision that day.

After supper, with the light outside waning, Ben decided to follow his youngest son out for a stroll. He was not in the least surprised to find Joe down by the lower corrals. The fact that Joe had his pearl handled revolver was a surprise. As Ben watched from the darkening shadows, he watched his son try to use his right hand as well as he did his left. Usually the most dexterous of his boys, Ben saw Joe fumble with the gun, unable to grip it well enough to even pull the trigger. Finally he decided he had seen enough to know that Joe was up to something and he had to know what it was.

"I thought Doc Martin said gentle exercise on that hand. That doesn't look gentle to me," he said as he pretended to wander aimlessly towards Joe.

"Don't worry, Pa. It isn't loaded." Joe raised an almost shaking arm to look down the sight of the gun. Ben reached out and easily lowered the outstretched arm and pulled the gun from Joe's grip with frightening ease. He could feel that there was no strength whatsoever in his son's arm.  Does he realize how vulnerable he is right now? No strength to stand and fight and his knee wouldn't let him run away if his pride would allow him to. But there is something driving him. Something more that usual in Joseph.  No, whether he knows it or not, he needs the protection of his family more than ever.

"I know the gun wasn't loaded, Joseph. I was more worried about the man behind the gun," Ben admitted, hefting the heavy revolver in his own hand. "What's with you, son? You haven't been yourself in weeks. And with this trial coming up tomorrow-"

At that point, Joe lashed out far more typical of his true nature. "I'll do fine at the trial. I'll get up there and testify just like Bradley wants me to. But I ain't sure just what good it's gonna do, Pa."

"Joseph, you promised me you would let the law handle it all." Ben's own anger flared as he spoke, a cold realization that was beginning to creep in of the real reason Joe may have been out practicing with the revolver.

"No, Pa.  I promised you I would let the law handle it until after the trial. Have you forgotten that there is another boy out there that Roy hasn't found yet? I'm not afraid of those three he arrested. I'm afraid of the one who is still on the loose. He's gonna come looking for me, Pa. I know it. I feel it. And only just today do I have the means to protect myself again." He held up a shaking right hand now curled tightly into a menacing fist.

Fighting to keep the horror from showing on his face, Ben dropped the gun into the dirt at his feet and took the shaking fist into his own hands. Slowly and gently, he opened the fingers wide, one at a time, Joe being able to give but weak resistance. When he had the hand opened completely, he placed it palm side to his own chest over his thudding heart. "No, Joseph, you have always been protected. And will be as long as this beats."

The courthouse in Virginia City was packed. Those who couldn't get into the actual room, stood in the hallways and outside the windows, hoping to get a glimpse of the proceedings. The saloons had seen brisk business but, come ten o'clock, had all but shut down for lack of patrons.

The four Cartwrights had ridden into town just before ten. Once they had dismounted and let the livery stablehand take their horses, making their way to the courthouse became a challenge. People not already there stopped and stared when they passed by. Ben had taken the lead, head held high. Behind him and flanked by his two brothers, Joe followed, feeling every eye cast his way, feeling any sympathy cast their direction as hostility. He kept a watch of his own on the growing crowd of people around them.

Adam had felt Joe immediately begin to tense up once the crowd began pressing in. A glance over Joe's head showed that Hoss had felt it as well and both brothers had subconsciously moved in closer yet to Joe. They were nearly to the steps of the courthouse when a cry came of "child killer" came from the mass of people, followed by a barrage of thrown objects. Something hard hit Ben's face and he staggered under the sudden impact.  Instinctively, Hoss and Adam pulled their guns, Hoss pushing Joe down and behind him. Adam was able to step in front of his father and glared at the crowd of people, the hammer on his gun clearly pulled back. The mass of people had backed away at the sight of two drawn guns but the unbridled and obvious disdain they had brought with them remained.

Ben quickly dabbed at the flow of blood the object had opened on his cheek with his handkerchief.  "Let's get inside, boys," he commanded, once again taking the lead. But now Adam backed up the steps, his revolver still drawn, protecting his family.

The district attorney had heard the outcry from inside and was making his way with Roy Coffee towards the door to the courtroom when the four Cartwrights entered. Both saw the blood on Ben's cheek, the drawn guns.

"You boys put them guns away. They'll be no gunplay in this courtroom," Roy admonished severely.

Reluctantly, Adam and Hoss both slowly holstered their sidearms but not before Adam told Roy to "tell the rest of the crowd to put away their rocks."

Case Bradley had escorted a shaken Ben to a front row chair and there, with Joe kneeling beside him, was calling for someone to get the doctor.

"I'm fine," Ben kept saying over and over again but Joe would not be put off so easily. Joe pulled the cloth down from his father's face and winced at the gash that had been opened on his father's cheek.

"Let me through," and then Doc Martin was there beside Joe as well. He assessed the wound. "Not bad. Shouldn't even need stitches. Bleeds a lot worse than what it actually is, Ben. Just keep this pressed to it a while." He handed him some gauze from his bag, taking away the handkerchief.

"Do we go on?" Bradley asked no one in particular of those gathered around.

"Yes," came the only answer and that from Joseph Cartwright without a second's hesitation and with frightening authority from one so young. The district attorney nodded his head. The boy would do well on the stand.

Once the trial was underway, the crowd quieted. The judge from far away Reno made it clear to all present that there would be no disturbances of any sort in his court or he would fine those responsible heavily. The three boys sat at the defense table in their Sunday suits with Judge Anthony Taylor as their attorney. They looked smaller and younger as they squirmed in the chairs. Morgan Taylor chewed repeatedly on his lower lip. Brian Fair, who had been warned about trying to appear too grown up, sat far back in the seat of his chair and pulled his feet up so they didn't touch the floor at all, swinging them back and forth. Jeremy Taylor kept glancing around at the crowded courtroom and had to be told by his mother's gesture to face the judge more than once.

Case Bradley had his notes lined out before him and he quickly went to work. First he asked the court for a delay, citing the earlier commotion. The judge asked Paul Martin to simply stand and he asked if he thought Mr. Cartwright would be able to testify as scheduled. When the doctor allowed that no real damage had been done, Ben felt Joseph stirring beside him. Without looking, he placed a warning hand to his son's knee and Joe's movement stopped.

"Motion denied, Mr. Bradley," the judge intoned.

"Then we would request a change in venue, your honor. My witnesses are truly frightened by the mood this town is in at present," Bradley pressed.

"This is most unusual for the prosecutor to request a change of venue, sir. Most of the time it is the defense. What say you, Mr. Taylor? Do you request a change of venue as well?"

Although he disliked being referred to as Mister Taylor, there was only one judge to the courtroom and the one on the bench was making it plain to all there just who the judge would be in that courtroom, and Anthony Taylor stood. He spread his hands and raised his shoulders in a shrug. "We see no reason for a change in venue, your honor. After all my clients are just children and taking them from the area and their mothers' loving arms would be a bit much. So, no, we don't feel it is necessary."

"Motion also denied, Mister Prosecutor. Anything else you not happy with?"

And with that, the trial began in earnest.
"Will the defendants please stand?" the bailiff called and when the boys had stood, read the charges: One charge each of assault with the intent to maim and harm. One charge each of malicious destruction of property. How did they plead?

All three had been rehearsed well and their "not guilty's" were barely audible.

The twelve men picked for the jury were from the area but claimed no knowledge of any of the happenings. That almost made Joe Cartwright laugh out loud, but he stopped himself just in time before he would have gotten a rebuke both from his father as well as the judge. Finally with the jury seated and instructed as to their duties, the trial began.

"In the essence of a speedy trial your honor, the State calls Mr. Joseph Cartwright to the stand," Case Bradley's voice cut through the murmuring crowd.

With clear and precise questions and decidedly terse answers, the prosecutor led Joe through the same set of questions he had earlier gone over with him at the ranch.

 Although he wasn't relaxed, Joe was confident in his demeanor, speaking in a loud and clear voice that even those outside could hear.

"And your cook, Hop Sing, I believe his name is, he was also present at this time?"

"Yes, he was. In fact, one of those -"

"Objection, your honor. These children are not on trial for what may have allegedly happened to the Cartwrights' yellow help. Much less should we allow any sort of testimony to be heard as to what might have happened in this alleged assault."

"Sustained. Mr. Bradley, keep your questions to the case at hand. Jury will disregard any statements made by the witness concerning the Chinaman." Even though he only voiced the sentiments of the time, the judge's prejudice cut through the Cartwrights like a dull knife. Especially the Cartwright on the stand.

Bradley floundered for a moment. He'd had hopes of bringing Hop Sing into the picture to possibly allow for further collaboration of Joe's story. Now that was gone. He had one more question to ask and his entire case rested on that one question.

"Joe, can you positively identify the young men who so brutally beat you and destroyed your home? I remind you that you are under oath," and with that he leaned into his witness and whispered "I speak enough Chinese to know." But the others in the court only saw Joe Cartwright visibly pale and his jaw tremble. In their seats, the other three members of the family exchanged worried looks as Joe's breathing became erratic, his eyes narrow as though in pain.

"Do you need me to repeat the question?" Case Bradley prayed for the right answer.

"No, sir." Where once his voice had rung out through the room, now Joe was barely whispering.

"Well then? Can you positively identify these young men as those who beat you?"


"Then why in tarnation are we having this trial?" the judge shouted and the courtroom erupted into pandemonium. Banging his gavel, slowly the room returned to a semblance of order. Bradley allowed he had no further questions.

Barely able to contain his jubilation, Anthony Taylor had no questions for the witness. And a very different Joe Cartwright descended the witness stand, a mere forty five minutes after he had taken it. He couldn't bring himself to meet his father's eyes as he slid into the empty chair beside Hoss, away from his father.

The remainder of the morning was filled with the testimony of Paul Martin and Roy Coffee concerning the wound on the back of Brian Fair's head. Everyone in the room knew by the time the judge called a noon recess that the case was over.

Ben's raised hand stopped his sons from rising to leave. He wanted the courtroom empty before he moved or spoke. Case Bradley was the only remaining person when Ben exploded.

His head bowed, Joseph allowed his father's wrath to pour over him like hot oil. Finally, the heated emotion gone from him, Ben stood towering over his son, demanding just one answer - why had Joe claimed to have recognized Brian Fair in the doctor's office when he hadn't?

"Because he was there. So were Morgan and Jeremy Taylor. And Simon Kingsley. They were there, Pa." Joe struggled to keep himself from breaking down completely under his father wrath.

"But you just testified that you couldn't identify them!" Ben roared, in his son's anguished face.

"No, Mr. Cartwright," Bradley spoke up. "But your cook could. And he told your son. I imagine that the way things were happening that day, your son was doing the best he could to save himself and Hop Sing. And when a man is doing that, he often can't remember details, like just what his attackers may have looked like. He is just struggling to stay alive. What Hop Sing went through was entirely different than your son and he remembers it all, doesn't he, Joe?"

Joe's eyes again fell to the floor and his whispered "yes" barely made it to the lawyer's ears.

"Isn't there some way we can get Hop Sing's testimony admitted as evidence?" Adam asked.

Bradley snorted once. "In this court? Surely you jest, young man. Or did you hear something I didn't? No. And you saw that there was not one Chinaman in the crowd, didn't you? I was in hopes that I was wrong in what I had heard that day out to your ranch. But I am glad that you had the sense not to perjure yourself on the witness stand."

"What happens now, Mr. Bradley?" Hoss asked and Bradley turned to face the gentle giant he had heard so much about. Sure enough, there was the big man's hand resting on his youngest brother's shoulder.  As sure a sign of support as there ever was one.

"Well, my best guess would be that it goes to the jury early this afternoon. Give the jury five minutes and they will be back with a verdict of not guilty. Joseph, I admire your courage to do the right thing. Now if you will excuse me, I have to figure out some sort of damage control." And tipping his hat, he left the four men standing very much alone in the courtroom.

The afternoon session was proving just as Case Bradley predicted: brief. He had planned a more extensive closing argument but the admission by Joseph Cartwright blew most of his arguments out the window. But just before the session, began, Joe had approached him quietly and asked if he could speak to the court before the case went to the jury. Bradley conceded that it certainly couldn't do any more harm.

"Any more witnesses to be called, Mr. Bradley?"

"No, your honor. The prosecution rests."

"Mr. Taylor, your witnesses, please."

"Your Honor, we feel that to drag this travesty of justice out any longer would be most detrimental to these boys. We rest our case as well." Taylor couldn't help but smirk as he looked to the front row where the Cartwrights sat.

A ripple of whispers went through the packed room and the judge banged his gavel once and silence followed.

"Very well then, I will hear closing arguments at this time. Mr. Bradley, if you would please."

Case Bradley stood slowly and tugged down on his vest before he spoke. "I realize it is highly unusual but I would beg the court's indulgence in this. I would have Mr. Joseph Cartwright speak before the jury, your Honor." He shuddered at the thoughts behind his words but knew he owed the young man something and perhaps this was just the way to repay it.

"Let me understand this, Mr. Bradley. You would have your witness give your closing argument?  You are right to beg for indulgence. Mr. Taylor, do you have any objection?"

"No your Honor. Not at all." What ever Cartwright said couldn't overcome the fact that he had shot the State's whole case out from under them earlier in the day.

"Very well, Mr. Cartwright, you have the floor."

Slowly, painfully, Joe rose and following Case Bradley's instructions, entered the open space between the bench and jury box. He could feel his father's eyes following him and truly wanted the floor to swallow him whole but he also knew he had a debt to pay to a man not even allowed in the court. He cleared his throat and laid his hat on the table before the boys, staring at them as coldly as he could. His voice was soft as he spoke but in the hush of the room, it carried.

"I was born in one of the upstairs rooms of that house and I have lived in that house all my life. More importantly, many of the things there, my mother, who I barely remember, either brought with her or she and my father bought when the house was new.  The grandfather clock was an anniversary gift my mother got for my father on their last anniversary together. The chairs you boys destroyed, I sat on for every meal from the time I was old enough to put my chin over the edge of the table until the morning you used them as weapons against me and my friend. I can't remember my home looking any different than it did that afternoon.  Now, just like my mother, all I have are the memories. But those memories are tainted by what happened there that afternoon. Sure, you say, these are just things and they can be replaced.  Not all things are replaceable. One of the quilts you shredded my mother made for me before I was born.  That can't be replaced. Some of the artwork you so wantonly smashed to the floor were one of a kind pieces, done especially for my family. Books belonging to my brother you tore in half were first editions and treasured by him, not just because of that but because someone important to him gave them to him. Imagine going into your home tonight and not seeing your treasured keepsakes. And how your mother and father would feel, losing things  from your growing up. My father lost some of those things that my brothers and I had brought to him as children. They are gone forever now." He slowly turned away from the boys and towards the jury box. His voice rose in intensity as he continued.

"But there has been another victim in all of this. A victim twice over. This town, this county, you have all dealt with Hop Sing for more years than I can remember. His name may as well be Cartwright, same as mine. But when he would have come forward to tell in this courtroom what happened, you told him 'no', that he wouldn't be heard. That he couldn't be heard because he was Chinese, because he speaks a language different from yours. Me, you would listen to but I have news for some of you folks, I speak Chinese too and where do you think I learned it?  That same man you don't think is good enough to take the stand and tell what happened. It wasn't language that stopped you from listening to him; it was the color of his skin. And that sickens me."

Joe turned and looked to the young men accused, naked fury on his handsome face giving him a much harder and older look. "I have a sentence I have to live out, same as I hope you get from this court. But mine is here," and he raised his still casted left hand for all to see. "The doctor says I have a good chance of being able to use it again but not for the six to eight months it's gonna take to heal completely. But if this court lets you go free, I would worry if I were you boys. I would want Doc Martin to be wrong and pray that this hand won't heal well enough to hold a gun. 'Cause if the court turns you loose, this is the hand that holds my revolver and I may very well come looking for you with it. And someday, you will pay one way or the other, for what you have done to my home, my friend, my family."

The courtroom sat stunned and silent. Joe calmly picked up his hat and, head held high, put it on and left. The spectators outside moved out of his way as he made his way down the steps, headed for the Bucket of Blood.

"Bruno, give me a whisky. And leave the bottle." Joe tossed the first one back and poured another to replace it. He was about to pour another and drink it too when Adam and Hoss strolled through the doors.

"Pa send you after me?" he asked, anger rising in him as the effects of the whiskey took hold on him.

"Nope," Adam replied then snagged the bottle from his brother and another glass and poured one for himself.

"You better hope he's still setting there listening to the judge give directions to the jury. We couldn't stomach it no more either so we thought we'd follow you on over here. To say that Pa ain't very happy with you little brother is an understatement." Hoss took the bottle and poured a stiff shot for himself and refilled Joe's. "Good speech, little brother. Might get you in a whole lot of trouble but it was a dynamite speech. Really laid it on the line in there."

There was absolute silence for a few minutes as they drank, not looking at one another.

"So why are you two in here drinking with me at this time of the day?" Joe asked.

Adam cleared his throat and stuck his chin out. "Maybe because…Joe, look at it this way. The odds are overwhelming that that jury is going to turn those boys loose. Find them not guilty. If that is the case and your hand doesn't heal well enough to hold a gun, well, you might need us along with you to help you out. You don't have to go after them alone, we all will."

"But they are kids, remember, Adam? Kids and this whole town thinks they could do no wrong."

"The town is wrong, Joe," Adam replied, knowing that Joe was simply playing the Devil's advocate. "They are guilty and they are using the sympathies of this town as well as their own youth to get what they want. I looked real good at those boys in that courtroom today and I saw boys that if they don't stop now, are going to do far worse in the future."

"I can't ask you two to go with me on this," argued Joe, taking another sip of his whiskey.

"You didn't ask," Adam said, raising his own glass to his lips.

"We volunteered," Hoss commented.

"It goes against everything Pa has taught us." Joe took another sip of his whiskey, feeling the liquor burn his throat.

Adam pursed his lips and looked to Hoss for confirmation. Hoss kept his eyes on the small glass in his hand but gave a small nod. "Maybe this is one time when Pa is wrong," Adam said softly.

 A shout went up out in the street that the jury was back. After only 15
minutes of deliberation. The three brothers shared an anguished look between them as they rose to leave.

Ben looked up just in time to watch his three sons file in, easily making their way to where he sat, waiting. He didn't budge from his end seat, forcing his sons to step passed him. All but Joseph, who he reached up and forcibly pulled to the chair beside him. He let his hand remain on his son's arm, his grip tight enough that Joe pulled from its intensity but Ben wouldn't let go.

The judge signaled for silence as the jury came back into the room. The jury foreman looked decidedly nervous as he saw Joe Cartwright back in the gallery. His hands trembled as he gave the slip of paper to the sheriff who handed it to the judge. The judge took one look at it then nailed Joe with a vehement stare. Without breaking his stare at the volatile young man, he handed the paper back to the bailiff.

"Has the jury reached a verdict?" he asked, not letting his stare waver.

"It has, your Honor."

"In the matter before you, what say you?"

"In the matter of the State of Nevada against Morgan Taylor, one count of aggravated assault, and one count of malicious destruction, we find the defendant not guilty." The eruption of noise in the courtroom was nearly deafening. But within the expanse of sound, the Cartwrights sat in a pool of silence. The judge pounded his gavel for silence, still staring at the youngest of the Cartwrights, whose expression had not changed.

"In the matter of the State of Nevada against Jeremy Taylor, one count of aggravated assault, and one count of malicious destruction, we find the defendant not guilty." And again the room exploded around the four.

"In the matter of the State of Nevada against Brian Fair, one count of aggravated assault, and one count of malicious destruction, we find the defendant not guilty." But the foreman's words could barely be heard over the shouts going up outside the courtroom.

"Was the verdict in each case unanimous?" the judge asked.

"It was, your honor," came the reply from the foreman with a slight bob to his head.

"The court thanks the jury for its time and diligence in this matter. You are free to go. The defendants are also free to go.  I would see the Cartwrights in my chambers at this time." It was not a request but a command.

"Never in my life, young man, have I ever witnessed such. Never! You stood right there and threatened those boys. With a courtroom full of witnesses! Give me one reason why I don't lock you up right now?" the judge fumed, pacing back and forth behind the desk like a caged beast. His attitude wasn't helped by the fact that Joe Cartwright stood, head held high, completely unrepentant.

"Shall we start with the fact that there is no charge against him. He's done nothing." Adam moved in with the grace of a big cat to stand between his brother and the judge.

"Who the hell are you? If you’re the family lawyer, you are doing a piss poor job of advising your clients."

"If I were the family lawyer, right now I would be contacting the State Bar about your conduct. I may do that anyway," Adam spat back.

Ben's "STOP IT!" echoed like a shot around the small room.

"Yes indeed, Ben tell your boys here to stop it," Anthony Taylor exclaimed, stepping into the chambers for the first time.

"What's he doing in here?" Adam shouted.

"Delivering this to your little brother, Adam." And he dropped two folded pieces of paper at Joe's feet. "They are restraining orders.  Keep your son on a tight leash, Cartwright. No closer than 200 feet to my sons or Brian Fair. You understand that? You step one foot inside that circle and I will have you arrested and thrown in jail where you truly belong. Maybe if your pa had disciplined you a little better, you'd understand that lying isn't condoned."

If Hoss Cartwright hadn't been able to wrap his arms around his brother's slender form, Joe would have attacked the man right then and there. As it was, it was all Hoss could do to hold Joe and not hurt him. Ben put his hand to Joe's wildly heaving chest to also hold him in abeyance but his eyes sought Anthony Taylor's.

"You have delivered your messages. I suggest you leave. My son will abide by the law. Make sure yours do as well." Ben's voice shook with anger. Taylor left, gloating in his victory.

Once silence had returned to the judge's chambers and Hoss had turned Joe loose, the judge sat down at the desk.

"Let me make something emphatically clear to you, young man. If anything happens to either one of those three youngsters, I will send the law looking for you. And if you don't have any better alibi than you were with family, I will see to it that you are arrested and held without bail for trial. And I will personally take the stand against you. Do you understand that?"

"Then you better have me arrest me now," Joe said hotly.

"JOSEPH! BE SILENT!" Ben shouted, his own anger making him shake as he turned to face his son, held back once again by Hoss' arms. But the son he saw burned in fury, green eyes hard as emeralds and ablaze with anger.

"I WILL NOT!" Joe roared, defiantly.

It was then that Ben Cartwright, pushed to the emotional furthest limits of parenthood, did something he had sworn to never do to one of his children. As though it belonged to someone else, his hand flashed out and, open palmed, he slapped his son's face. Hard. It was hard enough that had Joe not been held against Hoss' chest, it would have knocked him down.

The silence was overpowering in the following moments. Ben was absolutely horrified at what he had done; Adam and Hoss equally stunned. But the greatest effect had been to Joe. After pulling his face back up to look at his father, he closed his eyes tight and let his head fall to his chest, all fight gone from him. Hoss felt his brother's body go limp in his hands and would have taken him into his embrace but his father stopped him. Ben's own face still registering the shock at his action, he gently placed his hands to Joe's face and tried to lift the boy to him. At first Joe resisted then slowly raised his tear-streaked face to meet his father's eyes. Beneath his now tender hands, Ben could feel the heat on one side of Joe's face, and could see the bright red mark of his own hand there.

"See there! Taylor was right. A little discipline works wonders," the judge chortled.

Adam Cartwright turned in one smooth motion and hit the judge's jaw with his balled fist.

Chapter Seven: One cannot change the past, only the future.
And that should be done with care and forethought.

Twittering birds outside his bedroom window announced the coming of a new day to Ben Cartwright. As was nearly always true, he was the first to arise. Except for Hop Sing, who tapped respectfully on his bedroom door just moments after he had arisen, a tray with a cup of fresh coffee on it in his hands.

"Thank you Hop Sing. You are a wonder, you know! Do you ever sleep?" Ben attempted a lightheartedness he was truly far from feeling as he accepted the proffered cup.

The little Oriental simply glared at him with hard almond-shaped dark eyes. He sat the tray on the bedside table and left without saying a word. His actions had made it painfully clear to Ben. What had happened had not met with his approval.

Thinking back over the last eighteen hours, Ben felt there was little that met with his approval either. As he stood wrapped in his robe against the early morning chill and looked out his window, towards the high mountains, he sipped his coffee, wondering where he had gone astray. Yes, to strike Joseph was a mistake. And he had tried repeatedly to apologize. But each time, the green eyes that looked at him were hard and sharp.   I have lost my son, somewhere over the last twenty-four hours, I have lost a son. Dear God, what can I do? I lost my temper with the boy. I gave in to an impulse but I have told him that I was sorry. What else can I do? I can't stand to have him like that with me. I reach out to touch him and he moves away from me. I try to talk to him and it is as if I am talking to a stone. Dear Lord, help me heal this rift I have caused with my son.

Out in the hallway, he heard the sounds of Hoss leaving his room and heading down for breakfast. No one ever had to drag him out of bed the way they did Joseph! There was so much about that third son of his that set him apart from his brothers. He had always seemed the complete antithesis to them. Ben sighed heavily. Yes, he loved his sons but never had one of the older ones angered him the way Joe did. But then neither one of them could make him laugh the same way Joe did.

His coffee finished, he quickly dressed and made preparations to start his day. Once he was in the hallway, he stopped at Joseph's door and rapped lightly, calling his son's name. There was no response and he really hadn't expected one so he simply pushed the door on open.

Blankets askew on the narrow bed, Joe lay on his side, both arms propped and resting on a pillow. When Ben called his name again, he tried to burrow into the pillows a little deeper. Ben reached out to touch his bare shoulder, to shake him gently and awaken him but his hand stopped just above the warm flesh. On his son's cheek that lay exposed, Ben saw the unmistakable bruise marks of his own hand.  I did that. In a fit of anger, I did that. Is it any wonder he can't forgive me?  Ben chastised himself.

Joe stirred again, this time a restless moving of his arms on the pillow and he moaned in his sleep. Ben took his cue from that. Pulling a chair to his son's bedside, he picked up the now unfettered right hand and slowly massaged it, feeling the muscles beneath the flesh loosen as he did so. He watched the expression on Joe's face go from an almost grimace into that of a little boy, sleeping peacefully. Keeping his motions easy and without exerting a lot of pressure, he extended the massage on up his son's arm.

Somewhere in the process, Joe came to the sleepy realization that what was happening to his hand felt good. He didn't want it to stop and figured if he woke up, the dream would end for sure. He stirred just little bit and hesitantly opened one eye to greet the new day. The first impulse he had was to smile. The look on his father's face spoke only of love and caring. But then remembrance of the day before came flooding back: the sense of failure he had felt in the courtroom, the anger with the verdict given and the final humiliation at the hand of his own father in the judge's chambers.  Perhaps the last was the hardest to handle. Repeatedly on their return home, his father had tried to talk to him, to make things right between the two of them and each time Joe had pulled away. How could he explain what had happened within him to his father?  He couldn't explain it to himself much less someone else. Something felt like it had snapped within him, draining all the strength from him at the same time it gave him new energy and purpose. And now as he watched and felt his father's warm, gentle hands trying to smooth away the cramping muscles in his arm, a plan began to form in his head. What was the one thing he truly wanted? His home would never be the same to him, so to want that was ridiculous. The jury was still out on his left hand but his right one seemed to be progressing, although it remained frightfully weak. Hop Sing had made tremendous strides in returning to his normal self even though there were times when Joe would catch the far away look in his friend's eyes that spoke of being lost.  His family seemed to be splintering before his very eyes: his father and Hoss, despite his brother's statement of support, wanted no part of the revenge he and Adam obviously wanted. But was that what he truly wanted? Revenge? What would it bring him?

I want just two things from those boys, he thought, still watching his father closely. I want a public apology to Hop Sing for what they did to him. And I want them to be afraid of loosing everything the same way I was…I still am…I will always be. I'm not sure I haven't lost it all now…

"Good morning, son. Sleep well?" Ben gave the hand a final pat. He had sensed rather than seen when Joe had awoken but had continued his fight with the cramping muscles. Please Lord, make him speak to me at least.

Joe pulled his hand away from his father's easy reach and flexed it several times. He warred with himself as to whether acknowledge his father or not. Such a simple thing he knew could open up the floodgates to his soul and release the torrent building behind them. Finally upbringing won out and he mumbled a "good morning" to his father as he pushed himself upright in the bed.

"I had hoped that we would at least have decent beds to sleep in by this time. I can't imagine what the hold up is," Ben said, keeping away from what was really on his mind. "I think this is Adam's doing. Makes it easier to get you out of bed in the morning when the mattress has this many lumps, don't you think so?"

If he had hoped for a least a little smile to feed his starving soul, Ben would continue to go hungry for Joe's expression did not change. And even though it was against his very nature, Joe quickly climbed out of bed and started to dress for the day.
"Do you need any help?" his father asked softly, looking at his own hands clasped limply in front of him.

Joe shook his head once, struggling with his one free hand to pull his nightshirt off. "Hoss'll help me if I do," was his clipped response. He was almost relieved to hear his father moving and prayed he was heading out of the room without further comment. It wasn't to be. Ben stopped at the doorway, his back to his son

"I want you and Hoss to check the north pasture today. We need to be moving the herd soon and I want to make sure the grass there will support them for a few weeks," Ben directed over his shoulder. He could have left it for the breakfast table since that was where that sort of conversation usually occurred every morning. He could have, but this morning just felt so different to him.

"Hoss can do it. I'm headed into town this morning."

"You'll do no such thing, young man." Ben's over-riding concern was to protect and letting Joe go into town would certainly only bring more grief, he was sure.

"What are you going to do to stop me? Hit me again?"  Joe challenged sharply.

"If it would stop you from doing something foolish, yes! Is that what you wanted to hear? I suspect not but I said it. And I said it for the same reason I did what I did yesterday. And for every day of your life, young man. Because I love you and want to protect you, even if it is from yourself. Yesterday you were on the verge of giving that pack of animals just what they wanted. Blood. Yours! I was not about to see that happen. I had to stop you. And if you persist in this idea of seeking those boys out and harming them, you are ultimately going to go beyond giving them blood. The shape you are in right now, it wouldn't take much for one of those boys to kill you! Much less, Anthony Taylor or James Fair. Do you understand that? You hurt one of their sons and they will come after you. And I understand that very well. I saw my son hurt beyond belief and wanted to lash out at someone for it so why not them? But tell me something, Joseph. What would be your reaction if I had given into my heart and gone after those boys? Killed one, say? Then hung for the murder? What then?"

"That's different -" Joe started, turning to face his father's angry countenance. Ben crossed the room in two long strides and grabbed his son's slim shoulders between his own massive hands.

"No it is not!" Ben all but shouted. "I have struggled with this for weeks now. You and your brothers seem to think you have the sole right to want revenge but let me tell you I have more than the three of you combined! Those boys destroyed more than my home, more even than my memories as you so eloquently put it yesterday in that courtroom. They are coming close to destroying this family. And to keep that from happening, I will use whatever means I have to. If that includes using physical force with you, I will do it!" With each sentence he spoke, Ben's bitter frustrations grew and he found himself shaking Joe more and more forcibly.

By the time his father finished, Joe had to hold onto to his father's arms to stand up so intense was his father's grip. Finally, shocked, he could stand it no longer. "Pa, stop it! You're hurting me!" he cried out.

Ben felt as though lightning had struck him and he froze. Looking into Joseph's green eyes narrowed by pain, seeing his son's face bruised on one side, Ben's heart lurched in his chest. The fear he saw there was a pale comparison with what was in his own heart. Words gone now, he gathered his son into his now loving and tender embrace.

"Pa, I'm sorry."

"No", he said, stroking his son's back, calming himself as well. "I'm the one who should be sorry. I should know better. You don't protect the ones you love with fear."

That last row of figures kept coming up with a different total every time he added it up. Ben tossed his pencil down and rubbed a tired hand over his eyes. He considered getting another cup of coffee from the kitchen to replace the lukewarm one at his elbow. Half way there, he heard the sound from the yard of a wagon and team pulling up. Scratching his head, he put the cold coffee on the table and went to the open door. There outside stood a large freight wagon, tarp covered, pulled by a six-horse team. A short bandy-legged man in dusty clothing was climbing down from his high perch. He spit a long stream of tobacco juice to one side as he approached Ben.

"Your name be Cartwright?" he asked, moving his wad of tobacco to the other side of his cheek.

"It is. What can I do for you?" Ben asked, hooking his thumbs into his pockets.

"Got a shipment here for you. Come all the way from Californy for you." The little man gestured grandly at the wagonload. Squinting back at him and loosing another brown stream into the dirt, he rubbed his scant chin whiskers. "Uhhh, you got someone to off load this stuff?  I just get paid to drive."

Approaching the wagon, Ben lifted the tarp to find only more boxes and crates. "I'll find someone to help you," he muttered, truly nonplussed.

"I tell you, Hoss, it was the most satisfying night I have spent in Virginia City in a long while. Give me another crack at that judge and I'll gladly spend another night in jail."

Hoss' chuckle preceded them into the house. They stopped dead in their tracks for all over the main room were stacks of grates and boxes. Over in one corner they could hear their father giving instructions but only see their little brother's feet peeking from behind one large slat sided crate. Both the older brothers shrugged their shoulders, looking at one another.

"The nail is bent so pulling on the slat isn't going to do much. Give me the hammer and I'll pull it out," Joe was saying but overlaying his voice was their father's gruff "Not on your life."

"Sounds to me like we need to lend a hand here, Adam."

"You take Pa and I'll take Joe." Adam jibed back.

"I meant with the boxes," Hoss scowled but Adam just rolled his eyes heavenward. Sometimes Hoss just didn't get the joke.

Just about then, Ben's head popped up from the corner. "It's about time you two got home. Get over here and help with this." That tone in his voice left no gray area to be contended with.

Three hours later, all four men were exhausted from their labors but they rested on the newly unpacked furniture. Adam was pleased with his choices. As close as he could, he had replaced all of the familiar furnishings, from the settee to the lamps.

"Yes, Adam. You have done a fantastic job! I am proud of you, son," Ben praised as he sat in his repaired red leather chair, rubbing the arm much the same way he would have a treasure.

"Just wish you would have shown up earlier to help with the unloading. Pa made me do it all myself. And here me with just one hand," Joe teased, his head resting on the back of the new settee. The other three men just snorted derisively, knowing that their father had made no such demand on him. In fact during the entire process, Ben's biggest task had been keeping Joe from helping.

"Think Hop Sing has dinner ready yet?" Hoss rubbed his belly, stretching his long legs out from the new settee he shared with his little brother.

"He's probably still unpacking dishes. You go in the kitchen and ask him. I have no intention of getting a meat cleaver under my nose if he's in one of his moods." Adam sighed and also stretched.

"Think I'll do just that. He can't scare me. Much." With that declaration of bravery, the big man lumbered to his feet and headed towards the kitchen. If dinner was going to be awhile perhaps he could talk Hop Sing into something to tide him over.

Hop Sing was just closing the kitchen door when Hoss made his unexpected entrance. He thought Hop Sing had been saying something to someone that Hoss didn't understand. When Hop Sing had turned to face his best customer, he jumped a hair, for he had not expected anyone else there.

"What you want?" he demanded hotly, trying to cover a certain degree of nervousness. He went to the stove and shoved another stick of wood into the firebox.

"Who was that, Hop Sing? Didn't know we had visitors." Hoss peered more intently into one of the pots on the stove than he did at the cook.  If he had been looking at Hop Sing, he would have been less concerned about eating.

"No one. You get from kitchen. Hop Sing no cook with you here! Stick fingers in pots all time. Make mess my kitchen. You go now!" To reinforce his demands, the little cook grabbed up his ever-present meat cleaver and brandished it under the big man's nose, even though it was a reach for him.

"But Hop Sing, I'm so hungry I could eat -" Hoss started to complain but wisely decided to back away from the stove.

"No care what you could eat. Supper be ready plenty soon. You wait!"

And with that pronouncement, Hoss decided he really could wait for dinner. "I'll go tell Pa and Adam and Joe that dinner will be a while yet." He began to back from the room.

Hop Sing harrumphed once and returned to his chopping block.

"Okay, little brother. What have you got up your sleeve? And I don't mean just a plaster cast. Out with it." Adam reined Sport around so he could face his brother.

Joe simply shrugged his shoulders once he had pulled his horse to a stop. Leaning forward he rested his casted arm on the saddle horn and without thinking about what he was doing, stretched his left leg in the stirrup.

"What makes you so sure there's something going on?" Joe asked coolly, keeping his eyes from meeting Adam's by looking straight ahead.

"Because for one thing, since you and Pa had that little dust up that netted me a fifty dollar fine and a night in Roy Coffee's jail, you have been as quiet as a church mouse. And for a second thing, I see you working on your hand. Is it back to full strength yet? Don't give me that look that says you don't know what I am talking about. I saw you last night flexing it and then this morning, you go out and try to saddle your own horse. That you haven't done since this whole mess started.  The thing is I can't figure out what your plan is."

Joe let the leather reins slide back and forth through his fingers. Cochise moved nervously beneath him, shifting in place then shaking his head. How much can I tell him before it gets back to Pa? he thought. Sure, there in the Bucket of Blood the day of the trial, Adam had promised him support but that was then. Had he changed his mind? Would he change his mind when he found out just what was going on? Probably. No, I can't tell him anything.
"Adam, you are imagining things is all. That book learning of yours has finally gone to your -" he started but Adam's hand slashing downward stopped him.

"I am not imagining anything, Joe. You do a good job on Pa and Hoss, fooling them into thinking that you've put all this business behind you. I know different. For once, you and I are on the same side of an argument and I know that my feelings haven't changed about it. So don't tell me I'm imagining anything." Adam eased Sport closer and for the first time since they had pulled to a stop while chasing strays that morning, Joe turned to meet his brother's eyes.

"What do you want after it all comes down?" Joe asked so softly that at first Adam wasn't sure he had heard him correctly. "If this whole fiasco could end today, what would you want to see happen?"

Adam sat back in the saddle and rolled the idea around in his head before he spoke. "I want to see three young men stand before the town and say that they were guilty. I want to see my little brother able to use both hands again without pain. I want to see my father not look at you and see the stranger you have become to him. That's what I want, Joe."

"You know what I want Adam?" and when he didn't answer, Joe continued. "I want to see those boys apologize to Hop Sing for terrorizing him. I want those boys to be afraid, truly afraid for once in their lives the same way they made him. And then, God help me Adam, I want them to feel just a moment of the pain I have gone through in the past two months. Not the physical pain. That's over with too quickly and the body forgets it too easily. No, the pain I want them to feel is the emotional one. The one that comes to you when you know you have failed at something really important. And how it feels to have the most important person in the world angry with you. That's pain you remember all your life."

Adam leaned down from the taller horse and settled his hand carefully on Joe's bad knee. "What makes you think you failed at anything, little buddy?"

"Because I did, Adam. I couldn't protect our home, or Hop Sing when it truly mattered. I failed. It's as simple as that."

Adam looked away and shook his head slowly. Just when he thought he had his little brother all figured out, the kid would throw him for a loop. And the loop he had just thrown him for was a big one in his estimation.

"There were five of them, Joe. The odds were against you!" he said, pulling his own attention back to his sibling's solemn face.

"You saw three of them in the courtroom! And the Kingsley boy wasn't much bigger than them. They were boys. Except for the other one, I bet the most serious fight they had ever been in was a schoolyard tussle. The only way they had of beating me was by sheer force of numbers." Joe's voice had taken an odd tone to it, Adam thought as he listened. This was not Joe playing the Devil's advocate.

"Hoss and I talked this over once, Joe.  Well, we've talked it over a good deal, actually. What beat you up in that fight wasn't a bunch of boys. It was the way you were brought up that started the whole thing unraveling." Joe looked up sharply at Adam, his face a question mark in itself so Adam continued. "When you first found those boys in the house, what was your first impression of them?  That they were kids, right?" Joe nodded but remained silent. "And before you knew it, they were all over you. Your first instinct was the same as mine or Hoss' or any adult's would have been: don't hurt the kid. Don't use the same force on a child that you do on a man. But before you could correct that notion, they had broken your hand. I would probably be right when I say that you didn't turn aggressive until they went after Hop Sing the second time. Right?"

Joe, thinking back over the fight, nodded. Inside, he could feel the punches again, could feel the stair railing give at his back as he crashed through it, could even see that booted foot coming down on his hand one more time. He began to shake with the unwanted memories Adam's words brought back.

"So Joe, you didn't fail. You followed what you had been taught. Forget about the fact that what you were taught didn't apply to that instance. No, you didn't fail. You succeeded so brilliantly that it damn near killed you! And now you have been tearing yourself apart, trying to do the right thing and knowing, just like me, that it wasn't going to work.  I want to see those boys pay for that, Joe. In the worst kind of way do I want it."

For several long moments, the two brothers, usually so at odds with one another sat in mutual silence, thinking the same thoughts. Then gently, Adam patted the knee beneath his hand only to feel Joe flinch away from the motion. "And I don't think Pa is angry with you. At least not for what you think he is.  He's angry with himself because he didn't follow his own teachings: he struck out physically at someone younger and smaller and less capable of defending themselves. You. Now what he is upset about is that every time he goes to tell you he's sorry, you shut him out. I don't understand that, Joe. 'Course there is a lot about the relationship you have with Pa that I don't follow. Sometimes I wish I had the same sort connection but I guess that with each one of us it has to be different. But I know he loves you and you love him. And your refusing his apology is hurting him."

Joe looked away, unable to meet his brother's intense glaze. No, Joe thought, Adam you are wrong. I did fail that morning. Same as I failed on the witness stand. But I won't fail again, I promise you that. And if my refusing to deal with Pa right now keeps him at bay, all the better.

"Come on, we have strays to round up." Without another word, Joe heeled his pinto around and headed back into the brush, leaving Adam wondering all the more what was going on in his brother's head.

"Flip you to see which one of us goes with Joe in the morning," Hoss offered Adam. The cool night breezes whispered through the tops of the pines, a gentle shushing sound. The two stood watching several new horses in the lower corral. They were wild ones brought in by the hands who had found them earlier in the day. There were fewer and fewer wild ones in the area now and these would be checked for obvious illness and disease before they were either broken to ride or turned out into the rest of the growing Cartwright herd.

"Okay. Winner goes to town with him but loser has to hold Joe back from working on these nags," Adam chortled as he rested his crossed arms over the corral top railing. "You know that once Joe gets that cast off his hand, he's gonna want to be right back in the thick of things real fast. And he'll probably start by wanting to break these horses."

"Yeah and I can hear Pa arguing with him about it too. Why is it that young'un has got to run at life like he's a runaway locomotive?"

That set both of them to chuckling but it was short lived.

"Did you get a chance to talk to him?" Hoss asked, picking up a strand of straw to chew on.

"Yeah. But, no, I have no idea what he's planning. He shut up tighter than a clam." Even though he knows I am on his side one hundred percent. "So that means that one of us needs to keep a close eye on him. Especially if Doc Martin takes that cast off his hand tomorrow morning."

"That is gonna turn him loose, ain't it? That's what he has been hangin' back waitin' for. Adam, maybe we both ought to go with him."

"No Hoss, I don't think Joe is going to be that obvious again. I've been watching him the past few days and doing some heavy thinking. Joe knew, ha!, we all knew that those boys were going to walk away from that trial. No matter what Joe's testimony would have been. He claimed to not recognize them to insure that they would go free. He also threatened them openly so as to draw the attention to himself."

Hoss bobbed his head in agreement. "But if he did that, make everybody watch him, then we got nothin' to worry about."

Adam pushed back from the corral with a heavy sigh. Standing straight-armed, he looked to the grass at his feet. "No, we have everything to worry about, big fella. Our little brother is about to become the second most scariest person you know." He turned and started up the gentle slope towards the lights of the house.

"If Joe's second, who's first?" Hoss asked warily, joining his brother with several long strides.


Miles away at that moment, two other brothers were also sharing a very private conversation. Morgan and Jeremy Taylor sat in the swing on their front porch and watched the lights of Virginia City come to life like lightning bugs that summer evening. But their talk was not on bugs or other boyish things.

"Morgan, I'm scared." Jeremy whispered to his brother, seeking shelter from his own thoughts.

Morgan made his best attempt at a contemptuous snort and shoved at his brother's chest. "What are you scared about? You big baby!"

"You know what. Cartwright. He stood right there in court and said he was gonna come after us. He scared me then and he scares me now. Think he is out there watching us right now?"

Again, Morgan snorted. "You heard what Papa did. Joe Cartwright can't come any closer to us than that tree over there. Papa called it a restraining order and said that should Cartwright do anything like even walk up to us, he can be thrown in jail. Besides, I heard tell that his old man beat the living hell out of him for what he said in court. Now if I was going to be scared of anyone, I think I'd be scared of Mr. Cartwright."

"No, I would be scared of any of them," came a voice behind them. Both Taylor boys jumped, white eyed and trembling with the sound. Then came a dry laugh as Johnny swung over the porch railing behind the swing. "If I had been Cartwright, you two would have never seen what hit ya!  I wouldn't put much faith in that restraining order you said your papa had 'gainst Joe Cartwright. Heard tell he is mighty damn good with a rifle just the same as he is with a revolver. And a bullet from a good rifle..." and the older boy pulled his arms up and held them as if holding a rifle, aimed directly on Jeremy and he pretended to pull the trigger. Jeremy paled in fright.

Morgan flew at Johnny in a rage and began to hit at him but Johnny simply pushed him off to the side.

"Stop wasting your energy, you fool. I ain't the enemy here," he sneered. "Just trying to show you idiots a thing or two is all. And a restraining order don't mean nothin' to Joe Cartwright. A beatin' from his old man neither. See when a man gets revenge in his heart and soul, he don't care about what happens to himself. All he wants is to get the other guy first."

"Stop it Johnny," Morgan commanded."You can say all that 'cause Cartwright don't know about you. You didn't have to sit in a courtroom and watch him. He didn't lean down and get right in your face so you could see just how angry he was. Jeremy and Brian and I did. We got a right to be scared of him. So back off!  If it hadn't of been for you and your big ideas, we never would have been in that place in the beginning. This is all your fault Johnny." The younger boy barreled at Johnny, intent on pushing him off the porch and out of their lives but Johnny stood his ground and once in range, simply shoved Morgan aside.

"That's right. I led and you followed. Just like good little children. And I saw when your folks took you into that courthouse. You two and Fair looked just like the babes everyone took you for. Problem is now you believe it yourselves. Grow up, both of you. Don't you know what you can do now?"

The two Taylors looked at one another, Morgan from his place on the floor where he had fallen after being shoved. Jeremy wiped the back of his hand over his chin, afraid that if Johnny saw the tears threatening to fall, he would be berated as weak.

"Ask your pa. There's a law called double jeopardy. You can't be tried for the same crime twice if you been found not guilty the first time. That means you and Fair can go after Cartwright. He's all yours and the courts can't do a thing about it. Think of the power that gives you! Hell, you can even run Cartwright out of town if you see him. Just keep walking closer and closer to him. He'll either stand his ground and risk going to jail or turn tail and run. Either way, you win. But I don't think you want to try that. No, I think if I was you and Fair, I'd go after him real private like. And soon. Before the doc takes that second cast off his other hand and he starts putting a gun in it."

Unseen by any of the boys on the porch, a single shadow, darker than the bushes that had concealed it, slipped away into a side street, intent on delivering a single word message.

"Would you hold still? And leave that alone. For the love of God, just leave the job to me, would you?" With that protest, Paul Martin smacked lightly the offending hand that kept getting in his way.

With an exaggerated yelp, Joseph Cartwright pulled his hand away but kept his eyes on what the doctor was doing to the other one.  They had thoroughly soaked the plaster over the past forty-five minutes and as much as he wanted to, Paul knew he couldn't pull at it to remove it. So he had taken up a pair of shears, intending to cut away some of the plaster-soaked cotton from Joe's arm. Joe had been trying to pick away at the loosening end next to his elbow but watch the shears at the same time.

"Maybe I need to get a saw-" the doctor started. Joe's high-pitched eek punctuated the office. "No, I mean to cut the plaster."

"Look I got a little piece going here. Use them scissors up here."

Just beyond the half-open door that led to the waiting room, Adam and Hoss Cartwright listened with amused expressions on their faces. What sounded for all the world like a first-class wrestling match between their brother and the doctor had been going on for a good while.

"You know he sounds more like a ten year old now than when he was ten!" Hoss pointed out just as another "watch it with them things!" echoed through the doctor's office.

Adam couldn't help but smile, remembering how Joe had been at ten. He hadn't been that easy to handle then either! "You want to take odds on who wins that battle?"

"Nah. Now if you want to put money on how that cast comes off, I'll take you up on it. Five bucks says Doc puts him out and takes a saw to it."

"You're on," was Adam's response and they shook hands on the bet. Hoss resumed his pacing and Adam lounged back in the chair. Not two minutes later, they both heard a loud thud and they traded anxious glances.

"Doc wouldn't let him hit the floor when he knocked him out, would he?" Adam asked with eyebrows arched.
"I think we need to intervene here, big brother if we intend to get home with a little brother in one piece."

"Agreed!" and they both headed for the surgery door.

There, half-sitting on the examining table, was their little brother, pieces of plaster surrounding his stretched out left arm while Paul Martin cut away the last of the cotton he had used eight weeks ago to cushion the hand. The doctor glanced up momentarily when he heard the door open the rest of the way but quickly resumed his work, his expression an annoyed one.

"I don't suggest you do anything like that again, young man. A blow like that on this hand could crack and break it just like the egg shell that cast reminded you of just now."

He pulled the last bit of covering away from Joe's hand. Slowly, all mirth gone now, Joe rolled his hand over. Like its mate two weeks ago, the skin was wrinkled and pale, just seeming to be draped across the bones seen so prominently. With a great deal of restraint, Joe picked it up with his right hand, cradling it palm down. The fingers were half curled and he used his good thumb to raise first one finger and then another to a straightened position, only to see them fall back, lax into his waiting hand. Paul Martin gently took the hand in his and ran sensitive fingers over the back of it.

Adam couldn't stand the silence another second. "Well?"

"As much as it had a chance to, it's healed," the doctor responded softly.

"What does that mean?" pushed Hoss, his own broad hand finding it's way to Joe's back where it pressed, feeling the body beneath it shake minutely and lending it much needed support.

Doc Martin looked up from his studying to find Joe's green eyes boring into him like hot pokers. "It means that the bones didn't heal right. They didn't line up enough to give back the same structure to the hand, Hoss."

"What do we do now?" asked Adam, and reaching out, echoed Hoss' touch.

"I can't really say. Hopefully you can get some motion back in it, Joe. You need to exercise it, just like the other one but be aware that those bones in there are still fragile and they can break again real easy. Let's see what sort of movement we can get." Into Joe's upturned palm, he placed the shears he had used. "See if you can fold your fingers around that."

For what seemed like an eternity, no one moved. No one spoke. No one breathed. All eyes watched the pale hand and the shears, willing the fingers to move but they didn't. When Hoss finally ripped his eyes away, he saw Joe's face, contorted in agony, his eyes closed tight against the tears that fell anyway. As he watched those tears slide down his brother's cheeks, Hoss felt his own control slip away as well. The long battle he had fought within himself ended, not with an explosion, but with a tear drop. He folded his protective arms around his brother's body, holding the slender shaking form against him, feeling the wet tears on his chest that matched the ones now on his own cheeks.

"Adam," he whispered hoarsely, "the other night when we was down at the corral talking about the scariest man and you said you were the first…you were wrong. I intend to be first now."

Roy Coffee had spotted the three familiar horses tied up outside of Doc Martin's office and had decided to wait over by the mercantile, not wanting to make it look like he was concerned or anxious. But he hadn't counted on waiting so long. And the longer he waited, the more concerned he became. He was just about to give it up and go into the doctor's when he saw the door open. His heart dropped when he saw that Joe Cartwright still carried his left arm in a sling. Roy did his best as he hailed them but they still caught the sympathy in his voice.

"See ya finally got that second cast off, Little Joe. How's the hand?"

He wasn't prepared for the stony silence that met him. Hoss finally just moved in front of his brothers.

"You had any luck in finding that other boy?" Hoss asked, his voice tight, the words clipped.

"No, can't say I have. And considering the mood the town's in right now-"

"If I was you Roy, I'd be more concerned how your friends feel right now than the riff-raff in this town," Hoss persisted.

Roy looked over the big man's shoulder into Adam's eyes and saw there the same determination he felt coming from Hoss.

"It's my sworn duty to protect the citizens of this town-" he started.

Joe pushed passed his brother's bulk, headed towards his horse. "Oh yeah, Roy, protect the good citizens of Virginia City. Don't worry. There's just a couple I want lined up down the sights of my gun."

"Now see here!" and Roy grabbed Joe's upper arm, the one held in a sling. He stopped when the coldest pair of green eyes glared back at him and Joe jerked his arm away, contempt written all over his face. Roy stood back as the two younger brothers moved passed him, but when Adam started to do the same, he spoke up. "Get a short leash on that brother of yours, Adam. I don't want him running around half-cocked, shooting folks."

"Don't worry, Roy. He won't be pulling the trigger." Adam swung up into the saddle and just before he went to join his brothers, said, "I will."

Word spread quickly around Virginia City. Sometimes the words were said with a sneer, other times, compassion. But there more times it was said with sympathy. Joseph Cartwright's hand was crippled. He would no longer be able to use it lightning fast on his pearl handled revolver. The devastating left hook was a thing of the past. More than one young woman recalled wistfully the fingers playing with her hair, dancing across her cheek or pulling her into an embrace less than acceptable by Society. Some of the same people who just a few weeks ago had been ready to vilify him for threatening children now spoke in tones much different. He didn't deserve it. Such a nice young man. So handsome but now what a terrible thing to have happen to him.

But nowhere were the words received with greater relief than the kitchen of the International House Hotel restaurant. As soon as Johnny heard it, he felt a relief so profound it was overwhelming.  The deep-seated fear he had kept buried for the past two months disappeared like smoke on a strong breeze. He had dared not let any of the other boys even get a whiff of it and the struggle to hide it had become an increasingly heavy load to carry. Now, he thought, he was about to be free. Cartwright was going to be more concerned about other things than one unknown boy - him. He had been unsuccessful in convincing the Taylors to hunt Joe down and finish the job they had started. And Brian Fair had been virtually locked into his home by his parents following the trial. No, he was free.

But he couldn't have been more wrong. On his way home in the wee hours of the next morning, he didn't notice any thing out of the ordinary. He jingled the coins and treasures in his pockets and whistled tunelessly as he made his way through the back streets. His mood was only broken once, and that was to curse the old Chinaman who, pushing a laundry cart full of dirty miners' clothes had nearly run him down. His thoughts more on his pending departure, he never heard the soft slippered feet behind him and felt only for a brief second what he thought were the old man's hands on either side of his face. And then nothing.

With the coming of the dawn at the Ponderosa ranch house came an incessant pounding at the front door. Ben had been part way down the stairs when it started and waved Hop Sing back to the kitchen. When he opened it to reveal Roy Coffee, it was hard to not show his displeasure.

"Isn't it a little early for a visit, Roy?"
"No Ben, this is an official visit, I'm sorry to say," Roy said, steepling his hands before him.

Adam and Hoss were in the process still of dressing as they came down the stairs, Hoss still tucking his shirt into his trousers and Adam rolling his sleeves up. They both acknowledged the Sheriff with cursory nods but few words.

"Where's Joe at?" he asked no one in particular.

"He's still asleep. Yesterday, as you might recall, Roy, wasn't the best of days for my brother," drawled Adam, coming to stand before the lawman, his arms crossed over his chest.

Hoss stood slightly behind and to one side of Adam. "What's this about, Roy?" the big man asked, no legendary friendliness in his voice.

The more Ben watched his elder sons, the more alarmed he became. It was only heightened when Joe appeared at the head of the stairs. Fully dressed and looking as though he hadn't slept, his face drawn and tired.

"It's one of the boys, isn't it, Roy? One of them is dead and you have come to arrest one of us," Joe spoke sharply and came slowly down the stairs to stand before the sheriff.

"Some thing like that Joe," Roy conceded but when Joe extended both wrists, as though willing the sheriff to handcuff him, Roy pushed both arms down. He reached into his vest pocket, extracted something and extended his closed hand to Ben. "Recognize this?"

Ben looked at the pocket watch Roy had placed in his hand. He didn't need to open it to know the inscription it held. "This is my father's watch, Roy. Where did you -"
"It was in the pocket of a dead boy one of my deputies found down in Shantytown about two hours ago. Have any idea how it may have gotten there?"
Never letting his eyes leave the three sons before him, Ben shook his head. "I didn't even know it was gone. It doesn't work. I kept it in my bureau drawer, hoping someday to get it fixed and give it to Joseph."

"Which one of them was it, Roy? Fair? One of the Taylors?" Joe asked, venom dripping from each name. "And now you've come to arrest me so just get it over with."

"I ain't here for you, boy. Get that through your head. The dead boy's name was Johnny Kincaid. I don't know what connection he had to the doin's out here. You ever heard the name? Hoss? Adam? Didn't think so. And I know you didn't have nothin' to do with his death Joe as his neck was broke, neat and clean and with your hands bein' in the shape they're in…" and Roy let the sentence drift off into the awkward silence. For long moments, he watched the faces of Hoss and Adam Cartwright. They had the strength to do it and the motivation to boot. But no one had ever identified the fifth boy. Roy had no proof whatsoever other than the watch that Johnny Kincaid had had anything to do with the tragedy that had taken place right where he stood. Besides that, he had checked in the barn before he had come knocking at the door. None of the Cartwright horses showed any sign of being ridden recently. He sincerely doubted that any of the Cartwrights had had a hand in the boy's death but he had had to come and ask for himself. And now he was satisfied.

"Just thought I'd return the watch is all, Ben. And just to let you know, the only ones who know about the boy having it are me and Doc Martin. Would like to keep it that way. Gents," and with a finger to his hat brim, Roy Coffee left the four stunned men.

Once he was gone, Ben cleared his throat. He watched as his three sons all looked at one another, appraising one another as they gathered before him in a half circle. "I thought I had made it clear last night that this business had cost us enough. That it was to end."

"Pa, none of us knew about this Johnny Kincaid. Don't you think if we had of, we would have gone after him and taken him to Roy?  The proof he was involved is right there in your hand. We may want revenge but we aren't so blinded by our desire for it that we would deliberately NOT use evidence like that," Adam argued.

"What Adam says makes sense, Pa. As much as I would have loved to have had a hand in it, none of us are responsible for that boy's death."

Over his father's shoulder, Joe stared while he listened to his brothers' discussion. He remained silent, studying what he knew and what he saw. Hop Sing stood by his father's place at the table, his countenance passive, his eyes slowly blinking. Then slowly, a small smile came to the Oriental's lips and the head dipped just once.

"Well. Let's have some breakfast." Ben was saying, once again juggling the watch between his hands. When his father and brothers turned to the table, none saw Joe copy Hop Sing's motion.

"Just tell me that you had nothing to do with it and I'll believe you but I want to see your face when you tell me," Hoss said as he swung the saddle blanket onto Chubb's back. The statement was directed at Adam who was also busy saddling his own horse.

"Then turn around here and look at me. I had nothing to do with that boy's death. Like I said to the sheriff, if I had known he was involved, I would have gone after him. No Hoss, I had nothing to do with Johnny Kincaid. Hadn't even heard the name until just a little bit ago. But maybe I should be asking you the same question. Did you have anything to do with Johnny Kincaid?" It was hard to miss the anger in Adam's word and tone.

"You know me better than that, Adam Cartwright." Hoss' normally sunny disposition was not evident at all. He swung his saddle onto the black's back and grabbed the cinch - all with more force and deliberation than necessary.

"Pa was right. This whole affair seems to be driving us apart then slamming us back together. We need to get a handle on these wild swings we're going through or it will end up destroying us as a family," Adam observed. Finished saddling Sport, he moved over into Cochise's stall to do the same.

"Well, you're the one whose so dang blamed smart. Just what do we do that is going to satisfy what I feel, what Pa feels, what Joe feels?" Hoss ripped back, then looked away, ashamed at the anger and frustration he had just voiced.

"We have two choices, Hoss. We either just let it all fall by the wayside and pretend that it didn't happen or we go after those boys, with a vengeance, full bore, until it's over. Now I don't know about you, but I can't forget some of the things I've seen and felt these last few months. I've seen our brother unable to do the simplest of tasks for himself because of his hands. Our father, I've watched him lose control like I never thought I would. And you, you've battled this out in your own heart and come up wanting. So I can't just pretend that it didn't happen. And I can't let it fall to the side and go on with life the way Pa wants us to."

"So what do we do?" Joe asked. He had been coming into the barn and stopped just outside the door, listening to Adam. Now was the time, he thought to himself. Now. And he had voiced his question as he continued on into the barn.

For several long moments, the three brothers stood appraising one another. Not as brothers but as ally and adversary, wondering which one stood where.

"The other day Joe, one of the things you said you wanted out of all of this was for those boys to know the same sort of fear Hop Sing must have felt. I suggest we give it to them," Adam suggested.

Joe nodded in agreement. "And we don't even need to lay a hand on them to do it." He looked at his two siblings, seeing Hoss' face openly displaying uncertainty. "What we do is simple. Once they find out about their cohort Johnny getting his neck broke by persons unknown, they are going to get real nervous. So we are going to help them out. Every time they look over their shoulders, they need see a Cartwright."

"You mean stalk them?" Hoss looked to Adam for confirmation that he had heard him right. "But what about Pa?"

"Pa doesn't need to know about it. Right now, chores and work are pretty light, right? So one of us can be in town and not be missed as long as it isn't the same one all the time." Joe came to stand at the end of Cochise's stall, his hand resting lightly on the pinto's back.

"What about at night? If we all aren't here, Pa will get suspicious." Adam gave his little brother a whole new cool appraisal. This was what he has been planning all along, ran through his thoughts but he pushed it aside.

"For that problem, we have a friend to help us. Hop Sing. All those boys need to see at night is a shadow outside their windows. A little motion. Just a glimpse of a figure is all it's gonna take. And the Chinese in Virginia City are more than willing to help us out."

"You sound so very sure about this, Joe. Want to fill me in about how you have come up with this new found liaison?" Adam asked as he gave one final tug to Cochise's saddle cinch, his eyes never leaving Joe's face.

"Just trust me that it's there and it does work. To tell you any more than that, I would be just fishing. Supposition is all it would be," replied Joe.

"I don't want to be a party to hurting them boys." Hoss declared flatly and then found himself the focal point for two sets of eyes.

"I promise you Hoss, I will not lay a hand on either of them," was Joe's reply while Adam said nothing.

"Adam. Promise me."

"This is not a school boy prank Hoss. Those boys have proven that they have the capability to dish out pain pretty well. I will not promise you that if they come after me or any one of us, I won't use what ever force I have to in order to stop them.  If that means a bullet, so be it. I will promise you this, Hoss: I won't force them."

The big man looked to the floor and scuffed his boot toe into the straw there at his feet. Joe's poise began to falter. The entire plan he had worked out in his head needed all three of them. Not just the silence and consent of the others but the active participation as well. All along, he had known that Hoss was the weakest link in the chain, feeling his desire for revenge ebb and flow. Joe knew that was a link that he could ill afford to have within the chain. He had considered leaving Hoss out of the scenario all together but Hoss had always protected him and the family as well. He couldn't see Hoss standing aside and letting this come to a head and not do something about it. Like get in the way. So he had waited and now that it was all in the open and Hoss had not openly joined them, Joe's heart began to run wild in fear.

Finally, ice blue eyes rose to study them. "I guess that is about all I could really ask for. Okay, when do we start?"

Chapter Eight: To stop a thief, one should first know that there is one

Roy Coffee paid a good bit of attention to who came into his town and how often. He referred to it as 'keepin' tabs'. Through out his years in law enforcement this keepin' tabs of his had alerted him to trouble more than once. He was pretty familiar with the routines and schedules of most of the big spreads so he knew when payday was liable to bring in a bunch of rowdy cowboys. He knew when the ranch hands would come into town for supplies and the mail. When cattle drives were over, he knew he would see the ranch owners in town, going about their business at the banks and the mercantile. Yes, he knew the rhyme and reason and rhythm and when he saw one of the out-laying ranchers or their hands in town off of that schedule, he knew there was the possibility of trouble somewhere. Some times it came down to the rancher having a bit of hard luck and letting some of his hands go. Or come into town to talk to the bank about a loan to see them through it. But this was not the case as he saw it now. For the better part of the past week, he had seen one of the Cartwright boys in town. That, in and of itself, may not have set off the alarm bells in his head. It was more to the fact that he didn't find them at the saloons or the mercantile or the bank. Rather that he would see them simply lounging around. The lawman said nothing but decided to study the situation and see what was going on. Then the realization hit him like a run away stage. Wherever he saw a Cartwright, he also saw Morgan or Jeremy Taylor or Brian Fair. But the men had made no move on the boys. Just sat or stood watching the house, or followed the boys about town.

Finally Roy decided he needed to look into what was going on. He decided it the afternoon he found Joe Cartwright leaning against a tree outside the Fair mansion.

"Joe," greeted the sheriff and he watched as the young man readjusted his stance against the tree so he could maintain sight of the front door.

"Afternoon, sheriff. And it is another warm one, ain't it?" smiled Joe but Roy saw that the smile failed to reach the young man's eyes.

"Yep, sure is. What cha up to?" he asked.

The noncommittal shrug he got in response did nothing to allay his growing suspicions.

"Just standing here holding this tree up, Roy," Joe answered brightly.

"I hear tell the Ponderosa's got lot of trees you could be holding up. And it wouldn't take a long hot ride to find one of 'em. Now I'm gonna repeat my question and I want a different answer. What are you doing in town?"

All pretense at mirth fell from Joe. "Family business, Roy" came his clipped response.

"What sort of family business that has  you boys stalking the Taylors or the Fairs? Boy, you got a restraining order 'gainst you! You do anything, get close to one of them and I got no choice but to lock you up. And I don't want to do that."

"Two hundred feet, Roy. I got two hundred feet and Adam paced it off to their front doors. I'm at two hundred and one right here. I ain't breaking any law that I know of so you got no reason to be threatening me," hissed Joe, no longer leaning against the tree but standing tall before the lawman.

"You could be construed as threatening them boys."

Joe spread his hands wide to his sides. "I ain't wearing a gun, Roy. You want to search me to make sure? While you're at it, take a good look at my hands. They are in no shape to be used as weapons either. So how you could say I was threatening anybody is beyond me."

Roy Coffee pursed his lips and gave Joe the once over with his eyes. The boy was right. By all the standards that the West used to judge a man, Joseph Cartwright would be deemed harmless. He wore no sidearm nor was a rifle present. Nor a knife. No weapons at all. And Roy didn't need to look at his hands to know they wouldn't stand up to a fight. No, the only thing Joseph Cartwright had to fight with wasn't apparent to the naked eye. All he had to fight with was determination.

"Joe, let it go." Roy urged softly. "There's been two boys die over this already. Simon Kingsley took his own life and someone, who, I don't know and can't begin to find out, killed Johnny Kincaid. Isn't that enough?"

"Not while three who were guilty go unpunished. Think of it this way, Roy. They are the ones who are responsible for the Kingsley boy's death. Not me. And as for Johnny, you're right. No one will probably never know who killed him or why."

"This isn't the way, Joe. The law-"

"We tried the law, remember? And that damn judge from Reno may as well have been eating out of Judge Taylor's hand. Don't forget. Our beloved governor sent that judge here. Our governor who lost kin because of this mess. You all talk about the law as if it were some high and mighty, never wrong, set of golden principles. The law is just people. And this time the people were dealt a crooked hand of cards. In the end, those of us who wanted just a glimmer of justice were shut out in the dark," exploded Joe.

"So what do you intend to do, boy? Light a lamp or start a bonfire?"

Roy watched the young man before him carefully. The eyes narrowed momentarily in thought then stared back, intently.

"What ever it takes for the people of this county to see the light."

When he opened the door to his office, Roy Coffee wasn't surprised in the least to find Judge Anthony Taylor and James Fair waiting for him. He had been expecting them for some time. He had even considered sending a note around to them, asking for a meeting. Now he didn’t need to.

"Gentlemen, afternoon. What can I do for you?" he asked as though he didn't already know.

"You can do your sworn duty and protect the citizens of this town." Taylor's face pulled itself into an ugly scowl as he spoke. Roy moved around the two men, forcing them to turn with him, then he sat at his desk.

"You need to arrest the Cartwrights. And now, before any more harm comes to this town's children."

Roy allowed a shocked look to come to his face. "I've seen the Cartwright boys in town recently but I ain't seen 'em doin' nothin' to no one. Particularly the children in this town, Mr. Fair."

"You bumbling old fool. They are threatening our sons day and night! Brian can't sleep at night. Wakes up screaming, having nightmares that someone is watching him all the time. Little Morgan has gotten so he won't step outside the house without his mother or father with him." Fair thumped the desk for emphasis as he spoke.

"The Cartwrights say anything to your boys?" Roy asked, trying to maintain his patient and concerned expression.

"No, they haven't said anything in words. But Joe-"

"I been watchin' them and I ain't seen them do nor say anything to your boys," repeated Roy.  "And as for your restraining order, I seen to it that Little Joe stays that two hundred feet away. You gents got nothin' better? G o home and see what's really botherin' your children."

"I tell you, sheriff-" Fair began but Roy slowly stood from his place behind his desk.

"Them Cartwrights aren't breaking any kind of law.  But if you continue to threaten me, you will be. And it will be you who go into my jail. This discussion is at an end."

"What do we do now?" James Fair, a powerful businessman who had gotten where he was by knowing the answers, had none for that question. Instead, he poured another shot of the judge's whiskey into his glass. He raised the decanter to the other man, offering. The judge shook his head negatively.

"I have no idea, Taylor. None what so ever. I do think that I may very well send Brian away for a while until things change around here. His mother absolutely opposes the idea. But I have to do something. Brian doesn't sleep, doesn't eat. I think he's scared to death that Joe Cartwright is going to follow through on what he said in the courtroom. Hell, I'm scared that he will. How are your boys doing?"

Anthony Taylor crossed his legs and settled back into his overstuffed chair there in his sumptuous study. "You didn't even scratch the surface when we were in the sheriff's office. Jeremy has clammed up tight. Stays in his room and won't come out. Swears he's seen people in his room at night. It's like the boys are being haunted by those damn Cartwrights. Morgan jumps at the slightest sound and cries easier than an old woman at a funeral. Just this morning, I went into my office across the hall. Thought I was making enough noise to wake the dead. Morgan was in there looking at one of my law books and nearly died of fright when I asked him what he was doing."

James Fair snorted then took a sip of the amber liquor. "What? You got him studying law already?"

When the judge didn't answer him, the other man turned to find the judge sitting there, pale and opened mouth.

To his question of what was wrong, the judge replied strangely. "He was looking at a section on double jeopardy. Oh my god, Fair. Something just occurred to me. Our sons…our sons….@B wereB@ guilty. They did what Cartwright said they did. Why else would Morgan be looking at… And now they may…no, I can't believe that they would."

The other man looked at his friend in equal alarm as he filled in the empty spaces in the judge's monologue. "There is only one way to find out. Where are your boys, Taylor? I mean right now. Where are they?"

"Upstairs, I suppose. They've been afraid to leave the house for fear of the Cartwrights."

"You had better check. I'm going home and see about Brian" and with a swirl of his coat tails, James Fair left.

With the slamming open of the front door, James Fair bellowed the name of his only child. His wife stepped from her parlor, her face aghast at the noise and intrusion.

"Why James, whatever is the matter with you? Calm down now."

Roughly he grabbed his wife by the upper arms. "Where is Brian? Where is he?"

"James, you are hurting me," she complained, her eyes wide in fright.

He shook her again, screaming his request again.

"Why he and Jeremy and Morgan were going fishing this afternoon. They slipped out the back door so that dreadful Hoss Cartwright couldn't see them leave. I am so happy they're able to get away and have some fun…" but she found the last of her words were spoken to empty air as her husband released her and ran into his study.

Frantic, heart pounding in fear, he saw that the antique pair of dueling pistols that usually graced the fireplace mantel were not there. A quick search showed that the small derringer he kept in his desk drawer was also gone. His blood began to run cold and anger took over, clouding his reason. With only the instinct of a parent protecting his offspring to guide him, James Fair pulled the heavy Colt 45 from his bottom drawer and checked to make sure it was fully loaded before he bolted from the room. His wife was left standing perplexed in the entryway, her hands to her cheeks.

Chapter Nine: To be reborn, one must first die

"Doc says this is good therapy for my hands but you probably think it's something else, don’t you? Come on, move over, Cooch. No, don't lean on me like that. What you think you're gonna get? Something extra out of me this afternoon? Don't look at me with those big brown eyes. I gave you two of the cookies I snitched. That's two more than I got and I'm gonna be the one Hop Sing fusses at. Cooch, come on, move over some" and as Joe groomed to his beloved pinto there in the corral behind the barn, neither heard the soft footfalls coming behind them. Joe did hear the hammer pulled back on a gun. He turned to it, hands raised and found three barrels aimed at him.

Joe studied the faces of the three boys behind the guns. The gun in Jeremy Taylor's outstretched grasp was a small derringer, but what held his attention was the look on the boy's face.  He's scared, even holding a gun, he's scared. He can do the least damage but he's the most frightened.

"Come back to finish what you started?" Joe taunted and took a small step away from the side of the horse. "Well, did you? Might as well go ahead and pull those triggers, all three of you. Get it over and done with. Come on, it's easy to shoot a man. Easier than beating him to death. Easier to do but harder to get away with in court. If I were you, Jeremy, I would aim for my gut. That little derringer you got there in your hands ain't much against bone. Especially at this distance. But then maybe what you need to do is wait until Morgan and Brian here shoot. Then you can walk over and put it between my eyes to pull the trigger. Yeah, then you can have all the glory of watching a man die." Jeremy's body began to shake as the thoughts conjured up by Joe's words took shape in his mind.

Morgan Taylor shifted his grip on the heavy pistol he held, his hands slick with sweat.

"What's a matter Morgan? That gun a little heavy? Ever shoot a pistol like that? I have. It's got a hell of a kick to it when it goes off. And it's loud, too. But don't worry. The only ones here right now are Hop Sing and I. When it comes to court, his testimony won't count and I'll be dead. So you just go ahead and pull that trigger. But you better aim for my heart 'cause you only got one slug in that monster. You do know where a man's heart is, don't you? Right here," and Joe gestured with his hand to the center of his chest, never letting his eyes off the young boys before him. Morgan kept his grip on the pistol but swallowed hard so Joe pushed on. "Ever see what a bullet does to a man's chest? A slug the size in those pistols does a lot more damage. You know, Morgan, you hit me dead center with that and you'll blow away half my chest. But don't worry if you miss by an inch or so. I'm sure that your buddy Brian there will be a better shot, won't you, Brian?"

"Shut up, Cartwright!" Brian screamed. His shout made Jeremy jump and the small derringer in his hand went off, the bullet gouging into the dirt at Joe's feet harmlessly. The boys saw that Joe hadn't even flinched.

"Why? What are you going to do if I don't? Shoot me? That's what you came here to do. So go ahead and get it done. What are you waiting for? Pull the trigger, Fair. But if I were you, I'd wait for Morgan there to shoot first. That way if he misses you can go ahead and kill me. Course then if he doesn't miss, you can get off.  Scott free. After all, you can testify in court and get yourself off. You didn't kill me, your friend did. Maybe the safest thing would be for both of you to shoot at the same time. That way, neither one of you will know who's slug actually killed me."

"Don't listen to him, guys. He's trying to pit us against one another. Well, it ain't gonna work," Fair warned but paled slightly when he heard horses pull up in the yard.

"Come on. You better pull the triggers, boys. Someone is out front. Sounded like at least two horses. Pull the triggers! Get it over with while you don't have witnesses. Except one another. And how long can you lie for one another about something of this size?" Throughout it all, Joe's voice had remained under control, cool and restrained but now he was on the verge of loosing it, afraid the boys would do as he suggested and pull the triggers.

"Brian!" came one shout followed by "Morgan! Jeremy!" in a different voice.

"They're back here!" Joe screamed then his voice dropped back down and addressed the boys again."Better hurry. Sounded like your fathers and you don't want any more witnesses than what you have now. Much less your fathers. I know I wouldn't want mine to watch me kill a man in cold blood. So come on, damn you, pull the trigger."

The tableau that met James Fair and Anthony Taylor was a chilling one. There stood their sons, weapons leveled at an unarmed man. They couldn't see the boys' faces but they could see the frighteningly calm face of Joseph Cartwright as he stood, his hands raised in the air, waiting.

"You boys waited too long. You've got more witnesses now. But don't worry. Your fathers will lie for you in court. Why Judge Taylor already did when he called you 'children'. You aren't children any more. You're men now that you are about to use a gun on someone. But your fathers will still try to protect you, even when they know the awful truth, won't you?" For the first time, Joe let his eyes leave the boys' faces and traveled to their fathers'.

"Jeremy, Morgan. Put the guns down, boys," the judge urged. "Put them down. Nothing has happened here if you will just put the guns down."

"That's where you're wrong, Judge. Tell him, Morgan. Tell him about you and Brian and Simon and Johnny and Jeremy out here a couple of months ago.  Just out to have little fun. Weren't you? Then things went wrong, didn't they? Just like now, right, Jeremy? All of a sudden there's witnesses." Joe's voice carried in the still and silent air.

"Is that the truth, Morgan? Jeremy?" but both boys remained silent, Jeremy openly crying.

"It's lies Papa, all lies!" Brian Fair screamed shrilly, never looking back at his father, his eyes transfixed on the man before him, the pistol in his hand never wavering.

When he had first ridden into the yard, Ben Cartwright threw an anxious glance into the house, seeing the five strange horses in the yard. When he heard the scream of young male voice and the word "papa," his heart stopped. He could think only one thought: his Joseph as a young boy had called him papa. He sought the origin of the shout and when he found it behind the barn, he froze. He saw the same thing that Fair and Taylor had: the three boys with guns aimed at his own son. And Joe was standing there, arms away from his body.

"Is it Brian? Is it a lie? You've told it so many times that now you don't know the truth? Go ahead. Tell them the truth. You've got nothing to be afraid of. They are not going to do anything to you. They're your fathers! They love you! They aren't going to hurt you if you tell the truth. And me? Well, I'll be dead, won't I? So just tell them."

"All right. We did it! So what? It was just for fun. We didn't mean anything by it. It was just for fun. So what if we roughed up the Chinaman? We never meant any harm. Then Johnny got carried away. It wasn't supposed to be like that. We didn't mean to do anything to hurt anyone," Morgan confessed but he didn't let the pistol drop.

With his words came a fear to Brian Fair's face so total and complete that Joe was startled by it. He could not imagine what would cause such a change in the young man before him. Then he saw it. James Fair, who had stood as though rooted to the ground, suddenly sprang forward and latching one hand to his son's shoulder, spun him around and back-handed the boy so hard it knocked him from his feet. The pistol in his hand went off with a thunderous roar.

Ben watched horrified as Joe dropped to his knees then leaned well over, his arms wrapped around his stomach and placed his head to the ground. With his son's name torn from his lips, Ben covered the few remaining feet to him, sure that the slug had found it's mark. He knelt before his son, calling his name.

It was with profound and utter relief that Joe lifted his head and saw his own father there with him. He had been certain that the next thing he saw would have been the barrel of one of the pistols. So it was that he half rose then sagged into his father's waiting arms.

"Joseph, are you all right?" Ben asked, afraid and relieved as well. Joe had escaped unscathed by the slug but the adrenaline still coursed through them both, leaving both shaking physically. Over and over again, Ben softly said his son's name and held him tightly, glad for the chance to do it again

The hands on the grandfather clock were pushing towards the hour midnight when Ben descended the stairs. There, sitting on the gray stone hearth, he found Joe, a glass of dark red wine cradled in his left hand. But he wasn't drinking. No, he was staring into the flames, deep in thought.

"You need to get to bed, son," Ben warned but softly

"I tried that. Couldn't sleep."

"Me neither." And with that admission he sat down on the table before the fire looking past his son into the flames as well. For a long while, the two sat there, saying nothing to one another.

"Is it over now, son?"

His lower lip caught between his teeth, Joe looked to his father and then back to the glow of the fire. He took a long deep breath and held it then let it go slowly. "Yes. I heard what I needed to hear. Not the same way I had thought I wanted to hear it. And not with the audience I had pictured hearing it. But there was more there than what I ever suspected," he said finally and took a small sip of his wine.

"What do you mean?"

"One of the things I wanted those boys to feel was the same sort of fear that I felt. No, don’t interrupt me, Pa, let me get it all said, please. Throughout this whole ordeal I've been afraid of one thing or another. First it was that I was afraid for Hop Sing. He means so much to me that I was afraid losing him would have been just like losing you or Adam or Hoss.  Then I was just getting him back when it hits me that I could lose the use of my hand and I knew a different sort of fear. Very close and personal. But that was nothing like the fear I felt when you hit me, Pa. I thought for sure you had seen my being afraid and was punishing me for it. I felt I had lost whatever respect you may have ever had for me."

"Joseph," Ben started then decided against words. He reached out and laid his hand on his son's hands.

"But I was wrong, Pa. At least as far as Brian Fair was concerned. He's felt that same sort of fear all his life. And will probably never know his father's love and respect. I believe Jeremy and Morgan when they say that they were coerced into it. I saw the fear on their faces when they were trying to decide whether to shoot me or not. But they weren't afraid of me. No, they were afraid something bigger. They were afraid of themselves."

"I ask you again, Joseph. Is it over?" Ben asked softly and he let his hand remain where it was on Joe's forearm.

Slowly, Joe took the wineglass from his hand and put it on the stones beside him. He then rolled his left hand over, into the light from the fire where his father could not only feel it but see it as well. Ben watched as sluggishly and with obviously painful deliberateness, Joe's fingers crept inward, curling into fist. Then just as slowly, he opened his hand back out and allowed it to fall relaxed.

"Yes, Pa, it's over," Joe whispered ever so softly.

Over in another far corner of the great room, at the doorway to the kitchen, Hop Sing had also been witness to the words. He let his eyes roam over the dark room, seeing it as though for the first time in a long while. He smiled to himself and turned to go back into his kitchen, at peace now. Yes, Joe had said, it was over.

On the stairs, hidden in the dark shadows, Adam had seen and heard all that had happened below him. He took a silent deep breath and held it, looking up as to the heavens for guidance. He saw nothing but blackness there. When he looked again below him, he saw the outline of his brother against the flames and bright hue of the fire, head bowed, but still a strong presence. From somewhere deep in the recesses of his mind came a memory to Adam. That of a story he had once heard of a mythical bird who once every five hundred years, became enmeshed in a ball of fire. There it struggled against the flames until it could struggle no longer and was consumed by them only to arise from the ashes newly born and stronger yet. How like the Phoenix his brother was, struggling now to be reborn from the flames, he thought. But unlike the Phoenix who arose abruptly and triumphantly, Joe was still within the flames. Caught and held there, it seemed to Adam. Not by a menacing and cruel force, but by the chains of his family's deep and all consuming love.

Was it over for Adam as well? If it could be for the one caught in the flames, it could be for him as well, he decided. For he had also felt the flames.

To be continued in Part Two, Phoenix Rising

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