Takin' Charge
The Tahoe Ladies

Dedicated to all those times when you have taken up the banner and led the way, even when you didn't know where you're going or why you had to…

Hmmm, what was that noise? Sounded like the front door closing. But all the boys are home tonight. Better check it out….
And donning his robe against the cool summer night air, Ben Cartwright went quietly down the hall, easing open doors and peeking in on his sleeping sons. The glow from his lamp showed Ben that Adam had fallen asleep while reading. Again. Softly stealing in, he eased the book from Adam's long fingered grasp and laid it aside. His eldest just sighed heavily, lost in deep sleep now instead of the pages of his most recent acquisition. Ben fingertipped back into place that tiny little bit of hair that fell across Adam's brow. With an indulgent smile for his eldest son, he turned the lamp down then blew out the light completely and left the room as quietly as he had entered.

The soft pale moonlight streaming through the open window in Hoss' room showed Ben that his stalwart middle son was deep in the arms of sleep as well. As Ben stood watching, Hoss snorted once in his sleep and flopped over to his side, making the bedstead groan. Of all his sons, Ben would have bet that this middle child of his always went to bed and slept the night through.  Even if he could snore loud enough to rattle the windowpanes downstairs. Probably what gives him his sunny disposition, Ben thought and started to turn away but then went back and pulled the quilt up a little higher on his son's broad shoulders.

The third room he stopped at, he knew even before he opened the door, held no sleeping son, the bedcovers a tangled mess and the bed empty. Ah Joseph, my restless one, he thought but chided himself as he though he should have known. Wondering what could possibly be the problem, Ben trudged on down the stairs and across the main room to the door.

Ben stopped in the shadows of the porch to watch his youngest son as he stood over close to the corral by the barn. There was enough light from the moon that Ben could see his son was dressed, but obviously not going anywhere as he was also barefoot, his shirt hanging loose, unbuttoned. As he watched, Ben saw Joseph stretch his arms and roll his shoulders, shifting his head from side to side as he did so, then he simply stood, head back letting the light evening breeze wash across him. The smile that came across Ben's face then was a different smile from the one that had graced it just moments ago in his other sons' presence. This smile was one of commiseration.

For the past couple of weeks, Joe had been busy working with a string of horses destined to be Army mounts. Taking the young horses straight from their own herds and breaking them to ride was a very physically demanding job but one that the youngest Cartwright took to with relish. There was nothing he liked better than to take a wild mustang and as he called it " come to an understanding of just who was riding who." Joe had never liked the term "breaking" for a horse for that implied the taking away of the animal's spirit and just as he didn't want that for himself, he wouldn't want it for any creature. But whatever it was labeled, the job still entailed a good deal of bruises and sore spots for the "rider".  And to Ben's long practiced eye, the "rider" was working his way through his fair share of those sore spots that evening.

"And how many did you take to a standstill today, Joseph?" Ben asked, coming up to stand just an arm's length away behind his son as he stood at the corral fence.

"It wasn't the ones I rode to a standstill, Pa. It was the ones that took me. What are you doing up?"

Typical of you son, deflect the conversation from yourself but I can do that as well as you can. "Thought I heard a noise that I needed to go check on. Found you out here and wondered why you weren't sleeping like your brothers. Anything wrong?" and Ben let his hand glide across his son's shoulders, feeling the tight muscles there as he moved to his side.
"No sir, just couldn't sleep tonight. I'm sorry I woke you."

Ben tightened his hand reflexively over his son's slim shoulder and felt the tiny little jerk just beneath the shirt that telegraphed a sore spot. He let his hand slide slowly down his son's back and felt the knotted muscles just beneath the thin fabric of the shirt. He was gratified to hear Joe sigh just a bit and lean into his father's touch.

"I'll give you half a month's wages if you can get that kink out from between my shoulder blades, Pa."

"Well, I won't take the wages but I will see what I can do about the other. But back inside. This cool night air isn't any good for sore muscles, Son."

"Yes sir" and Ben caught the impish smile that came with it. As they walked back towards the house, Ben noted his youngest's slight limp. One horse too many, Joseph, one horse too many. Guess I never will teach you about overdoing it, will I?

"As usual, you are the last one down this morning little brother," Adam's voice stabbed at Joe the next morning as his brother passed his chair, headed for his own place to their father's right. Intent on his own plate of eggs and bacon, Adam missed the fleeting scowl his father aimed at him.  Hoss, on the other hand hadn't missed it at all, and aimed a kick under the table at Adam's leg. That missed Adam as well and Hoss didn't try again, afraid that motion would draw fire from one end of the table or the other.

"Morning, Joseph." Ben greeted. Yes, Joseph was up a tad late that morning but considering how long it had taken him to fall asleep the night before, Ben wasn't surprised.  It had taken almost an hour of Ben's kneading the young man's back, shoulders and thighs before the knots and tenseness was gone enough for him to drift off.

Before Joe could return his father's greeting, Adam spoke up, still not looking beyond his plate. "Hope you are through with those horses, boy. Army will be here next week for them." Joe opened his mouth to reply but never got the chance as Adam went on. "Need you to help Hoss with the branding for a couple of days." Adam looked up just in time to catch the ugly look crossing Joe's face, but again plunged on." We're short handed what with the mines going full out and we just can't spare you to play with your horses any more, Joe"

"Those horses need more work on them, Adam. Some of them need…" Joe was trying, Ben saw, to keep his temper but Adam that morning was too intent on other things to notice anything at all.

"What we need is for you to be out helping with the branding." Adam finally turned his full attention to his youngest brother and spoke each word with all the authority and emphasis in his voice he could attain.

With one shake of his head, Joe threw down the napkin he had just picked up. He shoved his chair back and started to leave the table.

"Joseph!" Ben barked, and it stopped Joe right beside Adam. Looking down, hard emerald eyes met coal black ones.
"Excuse me, Pa. I have to go saddle my horse." And without another glance, Joe stalked from the house, closing the front door with a resounding thud.

Ben was livid with both Adam and Joe. "Hoss, please leave -"

"But I just started eatin-"

"Now" and Hoss knew better than to argue when his father's voice took that tone.

Adam threw down his fork and started to rise as well, wanting out of his father's presence as well. It came as a surprise when he heard Ben's "Adam! Sit!" And it rankled. He thought that he was beyond the age when his father would address him in such a manner, as if he were a small boy caught in some mischief. More and more of late, his father had entrusted the running of the ranch to him and he thought he had been doing a good job of it, despite the fact that they were seriously short handed and falling behind on some critical time frames. Although the worries had been daunting and sometimes almost all consuming, Adam had kept at it. And now this was how his father was going to treat him? Ordering him like an errant schoolboy?

"I realize that we are having trouble keeping good hands and that there is far and away more work than we can handle but that was uncalled for, young man." Ben's own temper was flaring a touch that morning as well, he knew.

"What, telling Joe what I wanted him to do today? That's uncalled for, Pa? I think you are taking the wrong son to task here. It's Joe that needs the lecture here." Adam spoke defensively, not afraid of the look on his father's face. "Those horses are in good enough shape for the Army. We need every available hand out helping with the branding. And that means Joe as well."
Ben tried to compose himself. He knew and understood the logic of what Adam was saying was sound. But he also knew that Adam was going about it all wrong. And he told him so.

At that Adam exploded, much more like his volatile brother than himself. "Pa, I am not going to molly-coddle Joe the way you do. He has always had trouble taking orders and this morning just proves it all. I tell him what to do and he gets mad and you come to his defense. He is a man and needs to be dealt with like a man."

Adam's words hit his father like the sharp prick of a knife that barely draws blood but wounds all the same. When Adam saw his father's brows draw together into a furious line, he regretted the words but not the meaning behind them. He knew he was right in what he had said even if his father didn't agree with him.

"Let me ask you something, Adam. What have you been doing the last few days?"

The question took Adam unexpectedly. He had honestly expected a barrage on the defense of how his father treated them all alike."Well, Pa, you know as well as I do.  You and I have been going over the branding schedule then we went up and took a look at the timber on the ridge for the Ophir contract. Yesterday, I went into town for mail and the supplies and see if I could hire any more hands for the season. What does that have to do with Joe and his behavior?"

"And just what has Hoss be doing?"

Still clearly not understanding what his father was aiming at, Adam answered."Gathering strays. Pa what are you getting at?"
Ben had finally gotten his own temper under control. Gazing down the length of the table across his steepled hands, he replied in measured words. "While you have been going over schedules, riding out to look at stands of timber and going into town and Hoss has been gathering strays, your brother has been working with some very green broke horses. That string of horses is what? Twenty, twenty five head? And with the exception of two other hands helping him, he has busted every last one of them himself. Now you may think what your brother does is "play" with those horses but I have news for you, young man, I don't think of it that way and I assure you, Joseph doesn't either."

"Okay, so it was a poor choice of words-"

"No" Ben said swiftly and sharply, "A poor choice of attitude on your part. You said it yourself just now. Joseph is a man and should be dealt with as a man. You haven't dealt with him that way at all this morning. Something else you need to take into consideration, Adam. He runs the horse operation now and when he says the horses are ready, they're ready. Not you."
"Pa, you and I have been overseeing the running of this ranch for a lot of years together. I have never heard you complain about the way I handled things until now. This is a prime example of how you baby Joe. For God's sake, Pa-"

The explosion came and Adam found himself looking up at his father's angry face. "Last night, Adam I found him out by the corral, unable to sleep because his back hurt. When I went to rub out some of that, I found bruises on top of bruises. "Baby", "molly-coddle", those were the words you used when you said how I deal with your brother, right? Well, Adam Cartwright, show me the bruises you've gotten this week in running the ranch and I will deal with you the same way I deal with Joseph."
Contrition was not an easy emotion for Adam Cartwright to express but he felt that it was a warranted one, given his father's words. "Okay, Pa I'm sorry. I'm more than just a little on edge this morning. It's just that things haven't exactly gone our way, recently. We're behind on getting those cattle ready for market. That contract for lumber for the Ophir had some tight deadlines on it that I am worried we can't meet with the mill being short handed. And add to that this heat this early in the year is gonna dry up water that we need for everything." And Adam rose once again to his feet, putting the chair between himself and his still irate father. "I'm sorry I lost my temper this morning, Pa"

"Apologize to your brothers, Adam. They both deserve it." But both men heard the sound of a horse leaving the yard and it didn't take much to know which one of the missing brothers it was.

Teeth clenching and jaw tightening, Adam headed for the door. "Guess I better go catch that one," he softly growled.
"Take his gloves to him, Adam. And take yours too. Roping cattle burns your hands," came his father's clipped admonition. Although Adam had had other plans that day, he knew he had better be found helping with the branding.

The sun was high in the sky by the time Ben Cartwright got away from the house and down into the pasture where the crews were busy branding cattle.  The spring calves were plentiful that year. They had also added to the herd some recently purchased stock from a neighbor headed into mining now, not cattle. All in all, Ben had figured there were about two hundred head to be marked with the distinctive pine tree brand that was the Ponderosa mark. It looked as though it would be a good year for Ponderosa cattle on the market.  As he rode over to the fires, he saw Hoss flip a calf onto its side while Adam laid the iron on the calf's flank.

"How's it going, Hoss?" he asked as Hoss stepped back, loosening the calf who went running back towards the herd in search of it's mother, bawling.

"Not too bad Pa. All things considering," was Hoss' answer. He wondered what sort of mood his father was in and didn't want to sound anything but neutral.

"Where is your brother? Is he out here helping?" Ben was scanning the herd but didn't see Joe's most noticeable feature at a distance, his pinto.

Hoss saw the direction his father was looking and knew he wasn't talking about Adam. "Yeah, but you lookin' for the wrong horse, Pa. He wore Cochise out this morning; least wise he said he did.  Joe's out there on that new cutting horse he got from down south."

Just then Ben saw Joe, astride the horse they had named Blade, a striking chestnut with a barrel chest and powerful hindquarters. It had been a recent addition to the Cartwright stable, bought from a Texas rancher. Watching the horse cut cattle now had made Ben wish they had been able to purchase more of them. The horse seemed to think like a cow, Joe had said, all the rider had to do was pick out the cow he wanted and the horse would go get him, outflanking and out maneuvering it at every step. Yes, Ben thought again, it was a smart buy. Not just for the horse but for the lessons Joseph had gotten while he had been away last winter buying the horse. From what he had learned, Joe felt sure he could train their riding stock much of what Blade knew instinctively. The only draw back was finding the right conformation in a horse. Most of the Ponderosa stock were bred for riding, longer than Blade was and only Hoss' Chubb was the right muscular. No, Joe had said, they needed more Texas stock like Blade. There had been more than one heated discussion concerning the hefty acquisition based on an unfounded decision. Finally a compromise had been reached. They would see just how well Blade did and should all seem pleased by the performance, the coming winter, Joe would be back in Texas, buying breeding stock this time around.

As Ben watched the chestnut cutting away a calf from the herd and keeping it at bay while Joe roped it, Ben knew that Joe would get his wish and there would be more just like Blade on the Ponderosa before next spring. It was indeed a joy to watch horse and rider matching wits with the calf and when the rope settled over the calf's head, Ben smiled. No one, he thought, no one sits a horse like Joe.

When Joe finally managed to get the little whiteface up to where Hoss could reach over and drop it to its side, Ben broke his musings. He had come out there for a purpose and watching wasn't it.  He stepped over and laid a restraining hand on Joe's thigh while Joe's attention was on the calf at the other end of his rope. Joe didn't look. He knew it was his father's hand and he also knew his father wanted to discuss his behavior that morning. Once the calf was branded and tallied, Joe backed the chestnut up two steps, releasing pressure on the rope. Hoss had leaned over and un-looped the rope and Joe coiled it back into his hand, while the horse stood stock still beneath him, waiting for the signal to go again. His father's hand had remained on his leg the entire time.

"Take a break, son." Ben said and Joe automatically finished the sentence for him in his own head "I want to talk to you." So he nudged the horse lightly with his knee towards the shadow of nearby trees, his hands still curling the rope. Ben noted that Joe wasn't even holding the reins, they were looped over the chestnut's neck. In one graceful move, Joe was off the horse and waiting for his father's words.

"How's Blade doing?" Ben thought that he would start casually, running his hand down the horse's broad shoulder. He knew the answer but wanted to hear it from Joe's point of view.

"I saw you watching, Pa so you know Blade is out-doing every other horse out there. He's quicker on his feet and more focused on what he's doin'. Makes it easier and faster to get this job over with. But to tell the truth, I wouldn't want to use him as a range pony. Prefer Cochise for that. Smoother gait. Ride this fella all day out checking fences and I would feel like I had been ridin' broncs instead. But for what we're doing here, perfect." And Joe stopped in his praise of the horse before tackling the real reason he knew his father wanted to talk. "But you knew that already Pa. About this morning…"

But his father stopped him with a hand to his son's shoulder. "Yes, about this morning. Did Adam say anything to you?"
"He apologized if that is what you mean." And beneath his hand, Ben could feel the muscles constricting.


Looking up to his father's face, Joe pulled the scowl from his features and replaced it with a little smile. "And I am sorry I created such a ruckus at the table this morning."

Ben shook his head, letting a smile come to his own lips. "You did not create the "ruckus" as you called it, at the table this morning. Your brother did. Granted, you didn't help it. But I am proud of the fact that you managed to keep your temper. Fact is you did a better job of keeping your temper under control than either your brother or I did."

Joe snorted just a little, relieved that his father wasn't taking him to task for his presumed misbehavior. "Actually, Pa, that was kind of easy this morning. I'm just too tired to argue with Adam. Right now, I'm too tired to argue with anybody." Ben saw his beloved little boy again, not the man before him. "But like Adam says, we are awful short handed so I better get back out there."

Ben glanced over to where the rest of the crew was working and saw that they were all busy, no one looking in their direction so he reached out and gave his son a quick hug, then playfully swatted him and told him to get out there then. In more testament than his words had given to how tired he was, Ben watched as Joe simply stepped into the stirrup and swung into the saddle. Usually, Joe would have vaulted into the saddle and been gone in half the time. Once more, Ben put his hand on Joe's leg and stopped him.

"Tonight, son, I'll see what I can do about taking that half a month's wages from you. That is if you want me to."
The smile he got back was the one Joe normally used to stop young ladies' hearts.

For the rest of the afternoon, Ben stayed out and helped where he could. Even though he was still an active man, he knew he had no business trying to drop the calves the way Hoss did. What he did made his eldest son a bit put out but Ben figured Adam had it coming. He took Adam's place with the branding iron and had Adam start cutting the calves out the same way Joe was.

The horse Adam had pulled from the remuda was a short gray with black stockings called Hardhead.  The name had come from Joe while he had been training it earlier in the spring and for obvious reasons. Eventually the horse would make a good cutting horse but it needed a lot more work. Add to that was the fact that Adam tended to use the reins more than his body to tell the horse what he wanted done and it was confusing to the animal.

After about an hour, Joe reined up next to Adam as Adam was loudly castigating the gray for losing another calf back to the herd. "Here, Adam." Joe dismounted and if Adam hadn't done the same, he would have pulled him from the saddle. "Take Blade. Let me work with Hardhead some."

"Gladly!" was Adam's terse reply.

"And Adam, don't neck rein him. He knows what he's doin'. Just show him which calf you want, let him get him and hold him while you rope him." Joe instructed but the cold look from Adam's eyes told him that that had been the wrong thing to do.
"I have been handling horses a lot longer than you, little brother. Don't tell me how to do my job. You just do yours," Adam snapped, and although what he said was true, Joe knew what his brother had been doing that afternoon was wrong.

Joe had just pulled another calf up to the branding area when a shout went up down by the herd. From his higher vantagepoint, Joe could see that Blade was down and struggling to get back up. The dust cloud that had formed showed no sign of his brother. With a quick flip, Joe dropped the rope and spun the gray, headed back to the herd, looking for Adam.
Men were hurrying from every direction now. The ones on horseback quickly placed themselves and their mounts between the herd and the downed horse and rider. The ones on foot went to Adam and Blade. Joe was torn. Half of him wanted to see that Adam was okay but the other half knew the herd would spook easily and cause more damage if not contained. He stayed with the herd, but kept watching over his shoulder at the scene unfolding from the dust behind him.

Adam and Blade were both down as was a full-grown cow on the other end of the rope that had been tied to the saddlehorn. The problem lay in the fact that the rope was also looped around one foreleg of the chestnut and the more the cow struggled, the tighter the rope became around the horse's leg, keeping him from rising. Joe could see only part of Adam as his father knelt at the horse's back. And Hoss was trying to roll the panicky horse to its feet but was having no success.

Giving the herd a quick glance, Joe turned the gray towards the cow. There was only one option in his mind: stop the cow from moving. That would allow Blade the chance to gain his footing and rise from on top of his brother. And there was only one way to stop the cow. When he was nearly on top of the cow, Joe pulled his revolver and fired a single shot that ended the cow's movement. Hardhead danced wildly at the sudden sound so close to his head. Joe was not expecting the horse to react at all and from years of experience, he did what came by instinct: he yanked hard on the reins. The gray stumbled in its wild dance and Joe was thrown hard to the ground. He lit hard on one shoulder and tried to roll but couldn't, caught between the now dead cow and the prancing black legs. He knew if he stayed down, the odds of being stepped on were too high.
Using the reins, he hauled down on the horse and raised himself to his knees. Hardhead still danced.

Up the slope from where Joe was trying to rise, what he had done was paying off. With the slack in the line now, the chestnut was trying to get to his feet. Ben had moved to try and shield Adam's prostrate form with his own body from the thrashing of the horse while Hoss was pushing at Blade. Joe could hear the terrified screams of the horse and the shouting of the men. He caught snatches of the view as the dust continued to swirl around the scene above him, the rope making a line through the chaos. In horror, Joe watched as the inevitable happened. Blade was just about to his feet, his father moving closer to Adam, Hoss pushing hard on the horse's side when Hardhead's dancing rear legs snagged the rope. Blade went down again, but this time trapped three men.

In Joe's mind, time stood still. The men, horses and cattle around him were all frozen in place and the only movement at all came from his own hand. The one still holding the gun. The first shot he took while still on his knees and went into the under side of the gray's jaw. The second came as he slid to a frantic stop a few paces from the panicked chestnut and went into horse's broad forehead.

Hours later, as the wind whispered through the trees in its evening voice, sighing to the bright moon overhead, Joseph Cartwright sat on the broad front porch of his home. The lights behind him blazed brightly through the windows and open door. His booted feet rested on the upright, leaning him well back in the rocker. He finally heard the sound he had been waiting for: footfalls coming down the stairs inside.

Doc Martin was rolling his sleeves down as Joe approached him. The doctor quickly assessed the young man before him. There was a faint scent of whiskey but the green eyes were steady and clear. From what he had been told of this afternoon's accident, the doctor would have forgiven Joe even if he had been passed out cold drunk on the sofa. The site had been a horrendous one, he was sure. The men who had helped bring in the three injured Cartwrights had spoken of it in whispered voices. How Joe had coldly put bullets in two horses then, when unable to move the one horse trapping his two brothers and father without causing them greater pain, had taken the axe from the chuck wagon and roughly butchered the animal.

"Adam's awake. Why don't you go sit with him for a bit? I'll let you know about your father. Hop Sing is with Hoss but I think Hoss will sleep through the night. Go on, young man. I'm going to find some coffee. You look like you could use some too. Then we need to sit down and talk some." Paul Martin didn't know if he should have been relieved or not that there was no response.

Adam had thought about drifting back to sleep when he heard his door open. Through out the grueling afternoon, he had drifted in and out, comprehending little of what was going on around him. He kept hearing Joe's voice giving orders but had only seen him once and that was an obscene vision as his brother had been liberally coated in fresh blood, from the broad band across his sweaty forehead, down his naked chest and on his arms clear to the elbows. Finally, there had been an all-encompassing pain as he was moved and he had doubted his brother's word that everything was going to be all right. Now as his door opened, he saw Joe and doubted the vision, not the words.

"Are you all right?" Adam asked, surprised to find his voice weak.

Trying to put on his best face, Joe smiled lopsidedly at his big brother. "That's suppose to be my question. But then I know the answer and you don't. You will be okay, Doc Martin says. From the looks of it, I'd say you got yourself a nice busted leg, some ribs as well and the way your eyes are moving around in your head, a concussion to boot. Did I miss anything?"
"Not that I know of but then again, I am not sure how I even got here. Want to fill me in? Where is Pa?" and as he asked, Adam had started to rise up. Joe was quickly beside him, gently pushing him back into the pillows.

"Pa is the same place you are: in bed. And you don't remember what happened?"

 Adam had heard enough. "Pa? What happened, Joe? Is he okay?" Adam's grip on his brother's arm would have been sufficient to leave bruises. But it was more the look in Adam's eyes that scared Joe.

"Settle back down, Adam. You're not going to be helping Pa or yourself out by getting riled up so just let me and Doc Martin take care of things." But seeing the expression on his brother's face, Joe knew he had to put more behind his words. "ADAM!" he scolded as his brother tried to rise again from the bed, but Joe also found the doctor beside him, helping to push Adam back down.

"Now see here, young man, you are not going any where. Do you understand me? Lay still. Joe was right. He and I will take care of things. I haven’t gotten the chance to properly set your leg so any more of this thrashing around you're doing will only make it all worse. Do you understand me?" The doctor's words had more effect on Adam than his brother's did. "Your father will be fine. The accident this afternoon broke his arm and dislocated his shoulder. He is going to be out of commission for a while but he will be fine. Do you hear me, Adam Cartwright?" Doc Martin explained, resettling the man into the bed and checking the bindings around the man's chest. "I repeat, do you understand me? A simple yes or no will suffice."

"Yes. But I still don't know what happened." Adam moaned, going further even in making his tone more contrite.

"Explanations can wait until morning. Now I want you to close your eyes and see about getting some rest. Or I shall have to take the sort of measures I generally use on your little brother here." Doc Martin turned and gestured angrily for Joe to step from the room with him. Out in the hallway he handed Joe a cup of coffee he had set on the bureau outside Adam's door when he had heard the sharp voices within. "Take this and drink it. If you can't keep from fighting with Adam, go on down to the main room."

Joe was surprised by the vehemence in the doctor's voice and almost started to try and explain what had happened. Instead, too tired to fight, he took the cup and did as the doctor asked, slipping quietly down the stairs. Once there, he dropped into his father's chair and sipped the coffee, thinking of the afternoon. He wasn't surprised to find his hands shaking, again. They had shook this afternoon once he had gotten back to the house as he had tried to wash the blood from them. They had shook like leaves in a strong breeze. Now, he had to force himself into calmness, again. But the scene had continued to play itself over and over in his mind: the dancing horse entangling the rope pulling the chestnut off its feet again and onto his family, the white rimmed eyes of the downed horse as Joe had put the bullet between them, the blood spraying out as he had hacked into the dead animal, trying to free his father and brothers from the crushing weight.

"I told you to drink that coffee, young man. Can't I expect any of you fool Cartwrights to do as I ask? Don't know why I persist in being your family physician. Lord knows, there are patients out there who appreciate me enough to follow instructions." Seeing Joe tip his cup up and finish it off all at once, the doctor continued down the stairs. He took a seat on the square table across from Joe and studied him closer. "I've known you since the day you were born, Joseph, so don't go trying to fool me. Something is wrong here and I want to know what it is. You already look like you haven't slept for the better part of a week. And with you, that usually means one of two things: you are worried about something or you're coming down with something. Which is it? Because we need to take care of it now. This whole situation is only liable get worse if we don't, you know. After all, some one needs to run the ranch while your father and brothers heal. They can't so that leaves you, son"

"Lord, don't I know that, Doc! From what you laid out up there, it can't go anywhere but downhill." Suddenly Joe got to his feet and started to pace the floor, his hand rubbing the back of his neck, subconsciously trying to ease the knot that had grown there all evening. "We're already under manned and behind in everything. That was why Pa was out there this afternoon. He should have been here at the house but instead he's out there trying to be a hand again. And Adam had no business on that new horse trying to work with it! If I had left things alone, Adam would have been on the gray and I would have been the one tangled in that mess. Not him. And Hoss…" Joe's voice trailed off as he stopped pacing. "…and Hoss won't have been hurt if I had thought what would happen when slack went off the line. But you know me, Doc. Act first then think about the consequences later. Well, I did just that. Now look what's happened." He sank onto the sofa.

Paul Martin thought over everything that he had heard that afternoon. First from the terrified ranch hand Joe had dispatched to his office immediately following the accident. Then from the men who had brought in big Hoss Cartwright, covered in blood that was not his own. And finally from those who had accompanied an unconscious Ben and crumbled Adam. Throughout every recitation, he had heard the same thing: Joe had stepped into chaos and taken the horror on himself, giving orders and doing what had to be done. The doctor slipped over onto the sofa beside Joe and placed a steadying hand on the younger man's arm.

"It was an accident, Joe and you did what you thought needed doing. No one is going to blame you one bit."
Joe shook his head just once and felt the room begin to fade on him. As though from far away, he could hear Doc Martin's voice but couldn't find the energy to respond.

"That's it, Joseph. Close you eyes and sleep a while. Your gonna need it. Stop fighting it. Sleep." Rising from beside him, Doc Martin shifted Joe's head and shoulders over onto the flat of the sofa then tipped his legs around to stretch him out fully. A few steps and he had the red blanket from the landing and was spreading it over Joe. Straightening, he checked the grandfather clock by the door and calculated about how long Joe would be out considering the amount of the sedative he had laced the coffee with.

"Should be long enough for his father to come around so he can deal with him, not me."


With the first rays of daylight came a pounding at the massive front door of the Ponderosa ranch house. Matches the pounding in my head Joe thought, coming from the kitchen with his first cup of coffee of the morning. He had awoken just minutes before, trying to figure out how he had wound up asleep on the sofa. But his more immediate thoughts were more on the condition of his family than his sleeping arrangement. Now someone at the door…

"All right, all right, I'm coming!" he fussed but not loud enough to be heard beyond the door.

Standing on the other side, hat held nervously in his hands, was Charlie. Old enough to be Ben Cartwright's father, Charlie however was just one of the hands on the Ponderosa and that was the way he wanted it. Joe couldn't remember a time when Charlie hadn't been there; he had been with the ranch that long. Chagrinned with the thought, Joe knew that there were many men on the payroll he didn't know even in the slightest. But not Charlie.

"Charlie, come on in. Want some coffee?" Joe greeted and turned from the door, forcing a heartiness into his voice he was far from feeling. And, with his back turned, he didn't see the hesitation Charlie used when he entered.
"Morning, Joe. No thanks on the coffee. Had mine this mornin' already. Listen, Joe, the hands wanted me ta ask how yer pa and brothers were?" he started.

"Well, I haven't been up to see them yet this morning but as of last night, they were fine. They're gonna be laid up for a while but they'll be okay." Joe explained, sipping at his coffee.

"That's good news ta hear, fer sure." Charlie bobbed his head in agreement with his own words. "But there is one thing we want ta know, Joe."

Joe leaned back on the back of the sofa, quickly catching the slight change in tone in Charlie's voice. When the old man didn't continue, Joe prodded with "Well, what is it?"

"It's some of the fellas who ain't been here long time like I have. We all done got it figured that with your pa and brothers laid up, you'd be taking over running things. And them newer men, they's anxious about things." The old man looked to his feet. He could feel the tension mounting in the air, coming from the young man not more than an arm's length away.

"Spit it out, Charlie. What's their problem?"

"Well," and Charlie began to twist his hat in his hand again, eyes to the floor. "They've heard some things about you, son, is all and some of them don't cotton to workin' under ya."

Anger began to build in the youngest Cartwright and it was evident on his face. "Is that all? They have any other complaints?" The words were hissed.

Old Charlie flinched at the tone Joe had used but didn't answer him.

"Is it, Charlie? Is that their chief complaint? That they don't know me except by reputation?" When Charlie still hadn't answered his questions, Joe pulled his now tightly wound body from the back of the sofa. "Gather the hands for me, Charlie. I want to talk to them."

"They's already gathered, Joe. Outside." Charlie spoke quietly.

"Then tell them I'll be out in a minute and we'll get this straightened out right now," Joe said harshly and watched as Charlie headed for the door, his hat now crumbled in his hands. Realizing that he wasn't angry with Charlie himself, Joe stopped the old man just before he got to the door. "And Charlie, thank you for coming and telling me."
"Sure thing, Joe." Charlie relaxed. This was the young'un he had watched grow up: a hot flash of temper but that kept the heart warm.

After Charlie had closed the door, Joe let his shoulders slump. What am I going to say out there? I am sure what they've heard isn't gonna help me handle all of this one bit. Seeing how is all probably true. Just go out there and don't lose your temper. You lose your temper and you'll lose it all. To fortify himself, he went to the kitchen to get another cup of coffee then went out by way of the kitchen door.

Charlie had been right, all of the men on the round-up crew were out there as well as the fencing crew. The men he had been working with on the horses were there but hanging back, away from the rest of the men. Since their attention was on Charlie as he stood at the corral fence, their backs were to Joe as he quietly walked from the house. Even Charlie hadn't seen or heard him leave the house.

Joe slowly made his way through the throng of men, listening to the words around him. "Just a rich kid, playing at working," he heard. "His brother treats him more like a hired hand." "Heard he's got a real nasty temper." "Did you see the way he was hittin' that bottle yesterday evenin' out on the porch? If his daddy was up and about, he wouldn't a been doin' that." "Word has it he's one lazy son of a bitch! Won't get out of bed unless his old man drags him out!" Joe just let the words just wash over him but it was hard not to take in the ugliness of them with each breath he took.

Once he had made it to the corral, he tossed out the remainder of his coffee, put the cup on the fence post and turned to face the thirty-odd men before him. Taking advantage of the fence behind him, Joe pulled himself up to sit on the top rung, more so he could be seen than anything else. The men quieted quickly. For several long moments, he let his eyes sweep the crowd, gauging and judging as they went. Stay calm, he kept telling himself, all the while feeling his heart pounding in his chest. Stay in control.

When he finally spoke, his voice was strong and resonant, showing none of his own fear and trepidation as it rang out through the early morning air. "For those of you who don't know who I am, my name is Joe Cartwright." He paused long enough for the murmurs to settle down. "That's right, Cartwright. The man who owns this ranch is my father. Now I realize that most of you were hired by one of my brothers-"

One chunky cowboy wearing a worn blue shirt spoke up from the middle of the crowd, "That's right, Hoss hired me to punch cows. I work for him-" but Joe cut him off.

"That's where you're wrong, friend. You work for the Ponderosa, not Hoss Cartwright. He's just a piece of it, same as I am. You may get your daily orders from him but you don't work for him." Again Joe paused long enough to gauge the effect of what he had said before he continued. All of them just continued to stare at him, waiting. "Most of you men know what happened yesterday to my family. If you didn't see it, you certainly heard about it. My father and two brothers were hurt real bad but the doc thinks they're gonna be all right.  It's gonna take some time and they're not gonna be able to work for a good while but they are gonna be all right. But let me explain one thing to all of you: starting right here and now, because of that accident, I am your boss." He let the last word sink in before he continued. "You got a problem with it, come see me. If any of you want to quit right now, you can pick up your pay. Go ahead and quit if you want to. Go to work in the mines. Sure they pay more but I, for one, want to see the sun during the day and breath clean air while I earn it. And not have to worry about several hundred feet of rock falling on me every second. But if you want to go work in the mines, you're welcome to it. Just see me and I'll get you paid up. But just remember if you do, when that mine closes down because the ore's run out or the owners can't afford you no more and you come crawling back here looking for a job, that I've got a long memory when it comes to men who leave me hangin' when I need help."

Joe waited, watching the faces of the men in the crowd. Some of them looked to their boots, others off to the side and a few met his eyes. All of them understood the threat he had just made: Leave the Ponderosa now and there would be no return for any of them.

"For those of you who decide to stay on, we've got to move cattle by the beginning of next month; some to Sacramento and the rest of the herd up to the mountains for summer grazing. Once that's over, we have fences that need mending, line shacks that'll need attention and horses to see to. By the time fall rolls around, I'm gonna need men to bring the cattle back down from the mountains for winter, close up those line shacks. I'm also gonna be looking for men to help bring in hay for winter feed, reaping and thrashing the oats and barley, too. I think it would be safe to say that I can use every last one of you for quite some time to come. But only if you want to stay. I ain't gonna force no one to stay."

The man in the dirty blue shirt spoke up again. "And just what are you gonna do if we all decide to quit? You can't hire enough help as it is. Some of us don't cotton to takin' orders from no boy."

Joe fought to keep his composure once the word "boy" had been flung at him. "What's your name?" he shouted out above the ensuing hubbub. Slowly, he got down off the fence, mindful that every eye was on him.

"Connors, Raleigh Connors, boy." And Joe heard the intentional use of the word again. He walked towards the burly man, the crowd parting easily. He stopped to within inches of the cowboy and took his measure. The man was built along the size of his brother Hoss but with a heavier gut. Inwardly, Joe was scared to take on a man this size but, to the men watching, he had to be bigger than the bully before him.

"Well, Mister Raleigh Connors," and Joe spit the 'Mister' with the same venom in his voice that he had heard in 'boy', "You got some of that right. You are right that we are havin' some trouble hiring help right now. And that might put us in a tight spot for a while if you all quit. But rest assured, Mister Connors that this winter while you are freezing your ass off riding line for some other rancher or feeling your stomach gnawin' at your back bone cause you don't have a job to feed yourself, the Ponderosa will still be here. And so will I. And as for you not liking to take orders from me, we can fix that real easy. Mister Connors, this boy just fired you."

And there was absolute silence. Connors and Joe locked eyes, Joe sure that his rising fears were shown there and the bigger man would take advantage of it. But he held his ground until the bigger man turned his head and spit. Round one is mine, Joe thought.

"Anybody else want their pay this morning?" Joe called out, looking around himself and was satisfied that there were no others wanting to follow Connors or quit. "Okay I want the same crews as yesterday out there branding them cattle. I'll meet with the crew leaders at noon. Any questions?" and when there were none, "Let's get moving. We're burning daylight."
As the men moved to get their horses and be on their way, Joe stood his ground, making the men go around him, watching each and every man as best he could until finally the only men left in the yard were Connors and Charlie.

"I want my pay," Connors snapped.

"In the house, then, Mister Connors." Joe replied, the 'mister' still dripping with sarcastic venom.

Once inside the house, Joe moved to his father's study and unlocked the safe. He pulled out the payroll ledger and the cash box while Connors stood seething in front of the desk.

"I been here since the first of the month. I deserve a full month's wages."

Checking the ledger in front of him, Joe found Connors name down on the date of the fourth. Beside his name was an X.

"That your mark?" Joe asked, pointing to the mark and when Connors said yes, "You signed on the fourth. That's twenty days ago. That ain't a month's pay. That's twenty dollars." And he tossed a double eagle coin at him. "Now get your gear and get out of my sight, Mister Connors."

Connors seemed to weigh out his options as he stood there and finally turned away, headed for the door. "I ain't gonna waste my time beatin' the crap out of a boy for a few miserable dollars," he flung over his shoulder.

Joe waited until he heard the door slam shut behind Connors before he sat down heavily behind the desk. With no one there watching, he let the scared young man show through and buried his head in his arms on his father's desk. He let the fears and anxiety roll through him, shaking him as he reviewed everything he had just done and said.

There was a soft sound beside him that finally drew him from his own personal chaos. He turned his head and saw just Hop Sing there beside him, pouring another cup of coffee for him. Once finished, Hop Sing didn't leave but stood there, a small smile on his round face.

Joe sat back and picked up the full cup. "Well?" he prompted. "I know you heard what went on out there."

"Yes, Hop Sing hear clearly. Lil' Joe have good voice, full of strength and determination. Father think you do okay too."
Nearly choking, Joe sputtered "Pa heard me too?"

"Sure, Hop Sing upstairs taking Mista Ben first coffee of morning. Both hear same time. Like Hop Sing say, good strong voice. Carry well too. Father say Lil' Joe do all right as bossman."

"I'm not so sure of that, Hop Sing. Tell the truth, I was scared spitless out there." Joe admitted.

Hop Sing harrumphed just once then stuck his forefinger onto Joe's chest for emphasis. "Hop Sing know there little boy inside there still. But no let little boy out or men no have respect. No work for little boy." Got that right, Joe thought but let Hop Sing continue. "Best way is to think like Mista Adam" and Hop Sing pointed his finger at Joe's head then pointed at his chest again, "Act like Father and fight like Mista Hoss" and ended by pointing at Joe's hand on the desk.

"But Hop Sing, Hoss rarely fights unless he absolutely has to."

"That right, only fight when have to."


When Joe finally rode in late that night, he couldn't remember being more tired in his entire twenty-one years. From his early morning altercation with the cattle crew, he had spoken briefly with his father and checked in on his brothers then rode out to the sawmill for a meeting much like he had had in the yard. He made his noon meeting with the crew leaders where the branding was progressing well. He made it a point to lighten his tone with them since each one of them he knew personally and they had also been instrumental in coping with yesterday's disaster. Joe had only glanced in the direction where it had all taken place and had been relieved to see no rotting carcasses. Amos Williams, his roping crew leader, just told him it had been taken care of earlier and the saddles from the two dead horses returned to the barn. Truly gratified, he thanked Amos and headed on to the timber camp for another confrontation. Now, almost fourteen hours later, he pulled Cochise to a stop in the yard and wearily swung down from the saddle.

"I'll take care of yer horse, boss." Charlie said as he came from the shadows and took the reins from Joe.
Joe was so tired he almost had missed it, the "boss". Smiling at the grizzled old man before him, Joe told him "Thank you. I appreciate it, Charlie."

Once inside the house, he quickly stripped off his jacket, hat and gunbelt. He wasn't in the least bit surprised when Hop Sing magically appeared next to him before he could get into the living room.

"Do I get any supper?" Joe queried tentatively. He was late, way too late he figured for anything besides an earful from the cook.

"You very late. Supper long time ago. You think I have time to make dinner two times?" and Hop Sing snorted in displeasure. "You go wash up. No come my table dirty. Hop Sing maybe have dinner ready for you. Maybe."

Joe rolled his eyes and went to do as he was instructed.  Is this how Pa feels when he comes home and has Hop Sing launch into him? Can rule a damn empire of his own making but not his own house?

Once he had finished his quick supper, he trudged up the stairs, determined to stay awake long enough to talk things over with his brothers and father. When he hit the top of the stairs, he could hear Hoss snoring so he just opened the door and took a quick peek in. Hoss lay sprawled on his back, his broken left leg propped on pillows just peeking out from under the coverlet.  Guess he's okay if he can sleep like that, Joe thought and slipped the door closed.

There was light coming from under Adam's door when Joe tapped on it but then let himself in without waiting.

"Don't know why you ever bother to knock, little brother." Adam said, not even looking up from his book. He knew who it was. He had heard the horse in the yard earlier.

"Because Pa always taught us it was bad manners to open a door without knocking, that's why. How's my big brother tonight? Still mad at me?"

"Actually, Joe, I think you should be the one angry with me. After yesterday, I wouldn't blame you right now if you took a poke at me."

Joe shook his head as he plunked his body into the chair next to Adam's bed. "Naw, another one of Pa's lessons: Don't hit a man when he's down." And they both gave up a soft small chuckle.

"Well, we got us a hell of a mess, big brother. What with you and Hoss down with busted legs and Pa out with a bad shoulder and arm, you know who that leaves running things, don't ya? That errant, lazy ass, shiftless, no good baby brother of yours, that's who!"  Joe sighed deeply, aware that he had just described himself the same way he had heard himself depicted all day today from a variety of different sources.

Adam's right eyebrow climbed to a precipitous angle. "Problems today, huh?"

"Yeah, that's an understatement. But I think I got it straightened out. Pretty much."

"Joe if you need help, just ask for it. You taking over running the Ponderosa like this has got to be hard. But you don't have to handle it all yourself." Adam tried his best to be conciliatory without patronizing.

"Yeah, well it's not like you can get on a horse and ride out to take a look at the way that new lumber was coming out of the mill for old man McDermott. I had to handle that myself. I did okay, I think."

Adam smiled a tiny rare smile for his brother. "No, I guess not. But look at it this way, you know where to find us when you need us."

Chuckling to himself as he pulled to his feet, Joe leaned over and patted Adam's leg cast, pointing out "And you sure can't get away from me very fast either. Okay, I gotta go talk with Pa. I'll see you in the morning and you can fill me in on the Ophir Mine contract, okay?"

Ben had heard the soft voices coming from Adam's room. He had been dozing for a bit, waiting for Joe to return home but he had given Hop Sing strict instructions that Joseph was to come and see him immediately upon coming through the front door. Upon hearing the voices across the hall, he decided one of two things had happened. Either Joseph was in full and complete rebellion, which Ben sincerely doubted, or Hop Sing had chosen for whatever reason to "misinterpret" his instructions. Ben would have put money on the latter.

Joe gave his father's door the same treatment he had Adam's. Couldn't play favorites. "Evening Pa. How's the arm and shoulder doin'?" he asked once he stood at his father's bedside, concern on his handsome features.

At the mention of his arm and shoulder, Ben put his left hand over where the doctor had bound his right arm to his chest. "It's seen better days, son. Lots better days."

Ben was pleased when Joe ignored the chair pulled to the side of the bed and sat on the bed facing his father. He had been scrutinizing his youngest son and saw clearly the tight lines of his son's shoulders. "You have any more trouble today?" and heard Joe's derisive snort in reply.

"This morning was an easy one compared to the timber camp, Pa". Joe gave in to his impulse and stretched out on his stomach on the soft bed where his father's free hand had patted the quilt as invitation.

Ben turned his son's face just a bit to one side and saw a deepening shade there that wasn't from a shadow but a fist. "Oh, new bull of the woods now?" He couldn't keep from chuckling softly. Usually the bull of the woods meant the biggest, baddest, meanest son of a gun on a logging crew who claimed the right by sheer brute strength during a free for all. To think that Joseph, a mere feather compared to some of the men Ben had working his timber, that Joseph had taken them on and won the title was stretching one's imagination.

"Well, Pa, look at it this way: If I weren't faster on my feet than them fellas, you and Hop Sing and Adam and Hoss would be trying to figure out which piece of me went where. What's that term Adam is always using? Yeah, that's it: motivation. I had lots of motivation, Pa I just hope that I don't have to go doin' it again tomorrow."

"No Joseph, usually once is all it takes. Take your old pa for instance.." and Ben  started telling his son of his own becoming bull of the woods. As he did so, he let his free hand rest on Joe's shoulder, his thumb moving in slow circles. Ben wasn't surprised in the very least that it wasn't too far into his tale that Joseph's breathing evened out and the eyes closed in slumber. If he could have made the maneuver, Ben would have done as he did many nights when he was younger and kissed his sleeping son's forehead. But tonight, he would have to be content with just touching him.


"Hop Sing, just how am I gonna do this? I'm stretched so thin right now, you can probably read through me!" Joe forked another load of eggs into his mouth the next morning while he sat with Hop Sing in the kitchen. Hop Sing was putting together three separate trays that would eventually make their way upstairs. Turning from his duties, he picked up the large meat cleaver and brandished it at the young Cartwright.

"You silly boy. You no have to do all by self. Ask for help. Family all help one another," he counseled with a threatening swipe that widened Joe's eyes as it passed his nose.

"Okay, then, let me rephrase my question. How are we gonna do this? And that we is you and I. In case you hadn't noticed, neither of my brothers are gonna be much good out trying to run the ranch for the next little while. Best I could hope for is that Pa gets back on his feet real quick but even if he does, Doc Martin says he shouldn't be trying to move around too much cause he's gonna be off-balance. So that just leaves you and I, Hop Sing. So explain it to me." His eggs finished, he reached across the small table to snag piece of toast from one of the trays. Hop Sing smacked the reaching hand with the flat of the cleaver. Just seeing the cleaver descending towards his hand nearly gave Joe heart failure.

"Leave 'lone. Is for Father, not number three son. Okay. This what you do, little boy who no think for self. What job you hate to think 'bout? Taking care of Father's books, right?"

"Yeah you got me there. I can't write near small enough and neat enough in those damn things to make Pa happy. And with his right arm being the busted one, it's gonna be quite some time before he'll be able to take care of that. So what is your suggestion?"

"Give to Mista Adam. Take books, ink, pen, everything he need upstairs to him. Tell him he must do 'cause you got no time for such."

"Well that's nothing big, Hop Sing. Adam takes care of the books lots of time." While Hop Sing's back was turned, he managed to grab the slice of warm toast, munching on it when Hop Sing turned back around.

"Then why you not think of it? Humph! Give jobs that man like to do and he do better. Yes? Look what Father give to ungrateful, toast stealing number three son to do: work horses. Father knows number three son love horses. Number three son do good work with horses. Now, no more talk. Hop Sing much work to do with three men in house who need much more help than little boy. Take tray to Father," and launched into a tirade of Chinese as he turned back to his stove and the breakfast cooking there.

"All right, all right, Hop Sing, I will," but as Joe picked up his father's tray, he couldn't help himself and snitched another piece of toast off it. He paused at the doorway into the dining room with the tray held in one hand and his stolen booty in the other. Between bites and well out of the range of the meat cleaver, he thought of Hop Sing once again as his greatest ally. "Thanks, Hop Sing," he called back over his shoulder and continued on his way.

The only reply was an answering snort.

"Well, son. What's on your agenda for today? Another go around up at the timber camp?" Ben asked teasingly but kept his eyes on his tray before him.

"God, I hope not, Pa." Joe turned from where his father sat up in bed having his breakfast and walked to the window. Joe envied his father the view from that window. It took in the mountains, some still with snow on them even in this early summer, and if you looked down and to the right, there it was, the little sliver of bright sapphire water that lead into the greater grandeur of Lake Tahoe. To be able to greet each morning through that window and see the towering pines that had given his home its name and brand, Joe felt that his father had it all. He was beginning to realize, now just a day plus into it, that being the headman of it all was a daunting task.

"How do you do it all, Pa?" he asked, his voice so low Ben almost couldn't hear it.

Ben stopped and stared at his youngest son's back. How could he answer that question? He just "did". He tried to put himself into his son's boots and try to imagine just what the young man was going through. Perhaps Adam had been right when he said that Ben cosseted this son. Joseph was twenty-one years old. Why, when he had been not much older, he had an infant son and was making ends meet by taking any job he could find. And even as he thought that, another thought came to him. Joe was feeling the responsibility of better than a hundred men. If it were just he himself and even a child, Ben had no doubts that Joe could provide for themselves well. The skills he had learned growing up on the Ponderosa would make him a top hand on any ranch. But one of the first skills he had ever mastered was loving his family. As such, the load he had just assumed would weigh heavily on him, trying his best to show his family that he was worthy of the love and respect they gave him. Now there was a heavy responsibility on Ben: that of showing his son just how to manage it all.

"Joseph, I am going to share a secret with you. I don't 'do it all'. I have sons that I trust. I just direct here and there. May I suggest that you do the same thing?"

Joe turned to face his father and Ben was pleased to see the smile on his son's face. "That would be a little hard for me to do right now, Pa. I don't have any sons." At least, please God, that I know about. The wild thought shot through his mind but Joe would keep that unspoken.

"No, I meant the part about directing here and there. I know that many of the men are new hands but there ones out there who have been with us for sometime and can handle more responsibility at a time like this. Let them. Find out what they're good at and let them handle that part of it for you," Ben counseled and had unknowingly told Joe the same thing Hop Sing had.

Joe had come to the foot of the bed and, leaning on the foot, studied his father. Two men whose opinion he valued had told him the same thing. It had to be the right thing to do even though he almost felt it was wrong.

"Okay, I will." He picked up his father's depleted breakfast tray and headed out the door but before he got to the door he paused. "But Pa, I hope that when this is all over and done with you still have part of that secret of yours. The part about the sons you trust."

Settling back into his pillows, Ben sighed. "I will always have that." But Joseph was too far to hear those words.


After he had helped see to the needs of his family and talked with Adam for the better part of an hour concerning the new contract for the Ophir Mine, Joe headed out the door. His father had asked what he was going to do that day and he had made his mind up. Well, at least, most of it. One of things nagging him badly was the round-up and branding. By the first of the month, they were supposed to be heading cattle down to Sacramento. He didn't think they were anywhere near ready. Just how in God's name were they going to pull that off? Pa and Hop Sing both had said to direct, to find a capable man and direct him, not the whole show, just the man. That was easier said than done, Joe figured.

Still deep in thought, he pulled the barn door open, ready to start morning chores  Run the ranch but can't get your own chores done on time, he thought sourly, but then when was the last time his father did chores other than when one of them wasn't home? Time to start that directing Pa talked about.  He stepped back into the yard, looking for someone to give chores to. There was no one there. Damn. But then he heard the ring of a hammer on metal over at the small forge and headed towards the sound. There was Charlie, straightening the rod on a branding iron. Perfect.

"Morning Charlie." Joe called breezily, as though there were nothing on his mind what so ever.

"Well, morning, Joe. How's the family this morning? Heard you hollerin' and  laughin' with Hoss earlier."

"Yeah the big lunkhead wanted to get out of bed and help me today. Figure that out, will you? How was he gonna be able to help me, seeings how he couldn't even stand up without wobbling?" and Joe chuckled again, knowing the only thing that had stopped Hoss was the sound of his father's voice from just down the hall. The old hand chortled right along with Joe, then he stopped.

"You know something Joe? Those horses you and I were bustin are just about ready for the Army. Them other two young'uns can finish 'em off without much more work. That means that you ain't gonna need me out there much longer." Charlie spoke with reservation as he looked down the rod he had been repairing.

No Charlie, don't tell me you're quitting, please no….

"So I thought the best thing might be for me to help up here to the house some. I can still chop wood and take care of horses and the like. I know I'se always been out on the range working but I kind of wish sometimes I could slow down for a bit. Just a bit, mind you. I still want to be in on the drive down to Sacramento. Don't get me wrong, I'm still a wrangler. Always will be. But if you could see your way clear to let me have this little break, I'd appreciate it."

It was like the heavens had opened and shed their blessings on Joe at that moment and his smile showed the relief he felt. Clear down to his toes then back up to the top of his head.

"Fact is, I saw how late you was getting out so I went ahead and took care of the horses this morning. Hope you don't mind, Boss."

"No Charlie, not in the least. Thank you, and yeah, until we head out for Sacramento, you can do around here just whatever you think needs doin', okay?"

The morning had been a mild one but as was the fickle whim of Mother Nature during the summer in high Sierras, the temperature had climbed steadily as the breeze dropped.   As Joe Cartwright rode a tired Cochise into the yard that afternoon, he felt as though he had been riding through an oven, the heat was so oppressive. He had been out that morning with the branding crew and when the heat had begun to mount had called the work off. It would do no good to ruin horses and men just for the sake of a few cows, he thought. Leaving a small crew to watch the large herd, Joe had headed over to where a crew was putting up a new line of fence.  There he had singled out a lanky dark haired hand by the name of Trevor to be the fence crew leader. Of the dozen men, Trevor was the only one Joe even recognized but once the decision was announced, there was no dissention voiced. He left instructions for Trevor to come to the main house that night after supper so they could discuss in greater detail just what need doing. Trevor had bobbed his head in agreement then thanked Joe, calling him "Boss".

Pulling into the yard, he would have given his right arm to be any thing but boss. Between the horses just a few days ago, the spill he had taken in the melee that had gotten his family hurt and the fight the day before up to the timber camp, Joe felt there wasn't a spot on him that wasn't sore and painful. Added to it all was the fact that he hadn't slept well in what seemed like ages. Now the heat was sapping every bit of reserved he could muster.

True to his earlier word, Charlie greeted him and took the tired pinto even though Joe wanted to care for his own horse. That was one job he really thought he could handle without too much difficulty but Charlie was insistent.

"You need to take a break, Boss. I'll take care of this for ya. You go on in the house. After all, ya' got company in there."

Joe's head snapped up. "Who?" he demanded quickly, afraid he couldn't handle any more problems at the moment.
"Just Roy Coffee. He rode in about half an hour ago."

Heaving a sigh of relief, Joe felt that perhaps Roy had just come to visit his father. Please let that be all it is. Just a nice friendly little visit.

 He stopped at the pump and dunked his head just once into the tepid water. He had hoped that it would help clear his growing headache but as he stood slicking his hair back from his face, he knew it wouldn't.  Joe took the side door into the kitchen rather than the front door. He was hoping to snag something to eat and a cool drink but instead was met by an irate Hop Sing and his meat cleaver.

"You no home lunch time. Why you in kitchen now? Not time for supper yet. You go 'way. Hop Sing too busy to stop, make special meal for inconsiderate boy. Look! You now all wet. Drip all over floor. Make mess. You think I have time for this?" and to punctuate his diatribe, Hop Sing slammed the cleaver into the chopping block with a very resounding thunk.
Blinking, Joe stood and listened until Hop Sing had gotten it all out of his system. He could see a fair size chunk of roast beef that had been carved on right next to a loaf of fresh bread, waiting to be sliced. He knew that down in the springhouse, there was a thick clay pitcher of fresh milk.

"You forgot one thing, Hop Sing. You forgot to tell me that you're going to go to work at your second cousin's restaurant in San Francisco because no one in this house appreciates all that you do."
It was Hop Sing's turn to blink and he harrumphed just once, unable to think of anything to say. Joe hadn't moved a muscle, just stood looking at him, waiting.

"Well, you got your bag packed? Come on, 'cause if we leave right now, I imagine I can get you on the three o'clock stage" Joe challenged boldly. But Hop Sing just stood his ground. "Well?" Joe challenged again. Hop Sing picked up his meat cleaver and turned back to the roast.

"What else you want beside sandwich?"

Why can't I bluff at poker like that? Joe wondered as he left the kitchen with a sandwich and a glass of milk and a promise of another sandwich if he would wait in the study.

There in the living room, he was surprised to find his father dressed and sitting up, talking quietly with Roy Coffee. His father looked as worn as he felt. His arm was still bound to his chest but a shirt was pulled over his shoulders and buttoned as far as it would stretch. Joe could tell it was bothering him to sit upright, the weight pulling him forward. Both older men looked up when Joe entered the dining room and Roy greeted him warmly.

Sandwich quickly disappearing, Joe sidled up next to his father's red leather chair and sat on the arm next to him.

As much as it was a joke in the family about there being a type of mental telegraphy between the four, Ben had always felt that there just might be something to it after all. Too many times over the years he had seen the results of a messaged thought sent by him towards a far distant son. And this afternoon, it was the same. When Roy had told him the purpose of his visit, his thoughts had immediately sent a message to Joseph to return home well before dark.

"What brings you out of town on a hot day like today? Got a hankering for Pa to beat you at cribbage again?" Joe tried to easily banter but the look on the lawman's face wasn't shifting from its sternness. He let his own expression drop into a more serious one.

"One of the hands, Joe. Roy needs to take him back to town. Seems he's wanted down in Yuma, Arizona Territory," his father started to explain.

"Who is it? What did he supposedly do?" Joe asked, suddenly becoming defensive concerning his family's welfare.

"Killed a man with his bare hands. Fella name of Raleigh Connors," Roy explained and Joe's heart flip-flopped in his chest.

"He's not here, Roy. I fired him yesterday. Paid him off and sent him on his way." An icy chill spread up Joe's spine as he spoke.

"That's what your Pa tells me, Joe. Did he happen to say where he might be headed or anything of the like?" Roy questioned, his hands spreading before him.

Joe looked to the floor and shook his head 'no'. "Just that he wasn't gonna waste his time trying to get a couple of dollars he thought he was owed by beatin' the crap out of me." He felt his father physically stiffen beside him. "Guess that's a good thing, ain't it? He doesn't think I'm worth the time it would take?"

"I'm gonna take a posse out and look around for him, Joe. But I think the smart thing to do would be for you to stay right here with your pa and brothers. I know that may be hard to do right now but I still think it is for the best."

"No Roy, can't do it. We have the army representatives coming in here the middle of next week for horses and by the end of the week we have got to have 400 head of cattle ready to take to Sacramento. I can't hide in the house and do that." Joe stood and began to pace the floor nervously.  And I started to take that bastard on right out there in the yard, Joe's fear and panic screamed at him within the confines of his mind.

"You can and you will, young man!" came his father's patient voice, commanding.

Joe took a deep breath and turned to face his father and the sheriff, letting his left fist burrow into his right hand. There had been many times that he had defied his father's authority but it wasn't usually to his father's face. Most of the time it had come after the fact. Now however, he knew he couldn't do it that way.  What was it Hop Sing had said? Think like Adam, act like Pa and fight like Hoss. Guess this is where I need to think like Adam.

"Pa, I'll be careful but I am not going to hide in the house, waiting to see if this guy comes back. I won't do it. Pa, I can't do it. There is too much riding on the next few weeks. Getting that herd to Sacramento means the finances to support the ranch for the next six months. You said that yourself, Pa.  And that timber crew is still on the verge of walking off. I have to keep a presence up there Pa if we intend to get the cutting done to met the Ophir contract. Without the Ophir contract, we're looking at a pretty lean season. No, Pa, I can't run this from the house. I can't do this the same way you do because I don't have the sons you do to make sure it all goes together right. I have to do it the way you did in the beginning: from the back of a horse." Joe ended up leaning on the back of the sofa, his eyes burning bright with determination.

"Joseph, you can and you will stay in this house until this Connors is taken into custody." Ben tried again, ever protective.
Once again, Joe shook his head. "Pa, don't worry. I will be careful, very careful.  I'm taking some of Hop Sing's advice to heart to get through this." Seeing his father's quizzical expression, Joe smiled a tiny fleeting smile. "He told me to think like Adam, act like you and fight like Hoss. So far, it's worked."

Ben recognized that Joseph was right. But there was something in him that couldn't and wouldn't put his son above the needs of the ranch. He had been right in saying that the next few weeks were critical ones to the financial well-being of the family empire. And defaulting on the Ophir Mine lumber contract could have long term detrimental effects as well. Faith in the mighty Ponderosa could be weakened and other contracts lost because of that quivering of faith. But all that wouldn't matter one bit if Ben Cartwright didn't have his sons alive and healthy. Somehow Ben had to make his son understand. He shifted his weight in his chair, seeking a more emotionally as well as physically easing position.

"For once, Joe, I think you should listen to what your pa is trying to tell you to do." Roy Coffee had watched his long time friend as he searched for a way to get through to his son and knew there was only one way for this to come to an end. "This fella Connors could very well come here looking for you. And if you're out there some wheres, he might not be too happy and want to take out his frustrations on your pa and brothers. Now they ain't in any shape to protect themselves. That means you need to, boy." Roy had come to a stop in front of the pacing young man. He could almost feel the tension rolling through the young man, fighting a private battle now between protecting the family and protecting the family's way of life.
Finally Joe sighed and looked into the sheriff's eyes. "All right," he said softly, "but as soon as you have the son of a bitch behind bars, you let me know."

"I will, boy, I promise you I will."

Ben was grateful that Roy had had the common sense to see the best way through the problem. He was also thinking on what Joe had said Hop Sing had told him to do. Yes, Joe needed to think like Adam, coolly and deliberately; act like Ben, with compassion and understanding, and fight like Hoss, only when necessity became a reality. But Hop Sing had missed one thing more important than all three of those attributes: love like Joseph. For it was only the love for his family would that make him do what he needed to do.

After insisting that his father go back to bed, Joe had tried to relax some himself that late afternoon but there were too many thoughts and worries running around in his head in order for him to get any real rest.  Roy had left soon after their discussion, promising to send word as soon as possible about any developments with Raleigh Connors. There was a large size chunk of the youngest Cartwright that wanted to join the sheriff on his manhunt if only to remove the threat he now perceived to be aimed at his family. He was still struggling with how he was going to accomplish all that he felt needed doing when there was a panic-laden knocking on the front door.

When he opened the door, Joe had to catch the man who had been leaning heavily against the door. He couldn't for the life of him remember the man's name but knew he worked down at the Cartwright sawmill. The man was panting and sweating and looking beyond him, Joe saw a sorry excuse for a horse that had nearly been run into the ground.

"Mr. Cartwright," the man was gasping for air as though he were drowning in Lake Tahoe. Joe tried to get him to settle down some but the man was obviously too over wrought." Mr. Cartwright, down to the mill. The big blade. Hit something. Just shattered the blade. We got men hurt, one man dead, boss. Everything's a…" but the man couldn't continue. His knees went from under him and he went to the floor, pulling Joe to his knees beside him

"What about Pete Winwood, the foreman down there? Did he send for help? Did he send for a doctor?" Joe was gripping the man's shoulders trying to make him focus on the words he was saying, not the vision held in his own mind.
"Pete's the dead'un, sir. Right next to the blade when it went. I come here fast as I could." Joe felt the pit of his stomach drop out of his world. Looking up he saw Hop Sing standing above him, ever present meat cleaver raised as though to fend off an attack.

"Go tell Charlie I need him, please," Joe asked and Hop Sing turned and disappeared.

Joe had just gotten the man to the sofa when Charlie appeared at the open front door.
"You wanted to see me, Boss?"

"Couple of things, Charlie. I need you to get a man on a horse who knows how to get back out to the mill. I want that man into Virginia City as fast as possible for the Doc. There's been a bad accident at the mill and we've got men hurt bad. Next I need you to saddle me a horse. I need to be out there. And the last thing I want you to do…" and Joe paused, considering his options then plunged on. "Then I want you and Hop Sing to get Hoss down them stairs and on this sofa. You and this fella here I want here in the house until I get back. You got all that?"

"Consider it done," Charlie agreed and he moved with a speed Joe didn't think was still possible for the old man.
"Hop Sing, pack me up some bandages and the like. Stuff that you think I might need out there until the doc comes."
"Little Joe forget he promise father and sheriff-" Hop Sing started to protest but Joe's hand made a quick slash down and stopped him in mid sentence.

"I know what I said, Hop Sing.  Don't argue with me. Now just do as I asked. Please." And Joe's words were clipped by fear as much as by anger.

Thinking he had better warn his father, Joe slipped up the stairs to his father's room while Charlie was saddling a horse for him and Hop Sing gathering the requested medical supplies. He was intent on telling his father his plans and just going but Ben was fast asleep. Joe made a dash into Hoss' room and woke his big brother from his afternoon slumber.

"Hey, big fella, got a problem you gotta help me with." Once he saw Hoss was awake enough, he briefly outlined what had happened and told him what he was going to do: ride out to the mill and take over until help came. In the mean time, Hoss was going to take up residence downstairs. Joe conveniently left out the part about him promising his father that he would stay there at the house. And the reason why. Those were problems he could tackle later when he had more time. Right then, he didn't feel he had the time. Hoss had simply nodded his head and told his little brother to go and take care of things at the mill.

When Joe stepped out into the yard with the bulging sack of supplies Hop Sing had put together for him, he was surprised to see Charlie standing there with Sport all saddled and ready to ride.

"Don't argue with me, Boss. You're pinto's beat for the day and you are liable to need the freshest horse we got. This fella has been worryin' things somethin' awful in there for the past two days. Get him out and get some of that nervousness off him."

"Okay, but you tell Adam I got his horse, okay?" and in a hot burst of dust, the chestnut and Joe were gone.


Even though it was past midnight when Joe rode slowly into the yard, it looked like every light in the house was lit. The front door loomed open, spilling still more golden light onto the porch. As he stepped down off the now exhausted Sport, he had been more in hopes of finding the house dark and quiet so he could slip in, get washed up and get to bed before anyone could stop him.  Maybe I can just hide in the barn, he thought but Charlie stepped from the one of the few dark spots in the yard before Joe could even take two steps towards the barn.

"Told ya that youse gonna need the freshest horse, Boss. I"ll take care of this'n. He looks a mite tamer now."

"Yeah, but I thought I told you to stay in the house."

Charlie scratched the back of his head up under his battered old hat and squinted at the young man he now called "Boss." "Wal,  when your Pa come down for dinner and found me and Hoss and that kid from the mill and Trevor playing' checkers and the like. . .." Charlie paused and looked towards the barn, figuring for the next half-hour or so, that was going be the safest place to be in the state of Nevada. "To put it mildly, he weren't too tickled with what ya done. Understood, I think but he still weren't too happy. I weren't neither but you’re the boss, Joe, and until your pa sent me out the door, I was doin' what you told me. Now gimme that horse and you get into the house."

Joe started the long walk across the yard but once he got into enough light, decided he should go into the kitchen. He needed to clean up before his father saw him and went into a frenzy. Thankfully, the kitchen, although lit up like the rest of the house, was empty as Joe slipped into the side door.

He stripped off his bloody shirt and kicked it aside before sticking his arms into the sink half full of tepid soapy water.  Nearly hypnotized by it, Joe watched as the red swirls of blood ran from his forearms and turned the water a ghastly pink.  Raising his hands from the water he looked at them as though they weren't his, the myriad of cuts and scrapes on them, the bruise on the knuckles of his left hand now dark purple, the scraped palm of the right. He plunged his hands back into the water and began scrubbing up his forearms, removing all traces of blood from them. Joe knew he could scrub his hands and arms until the flesh fell from them and he would still see blood there. Not his, but that of the men he had tried to help at the mill. As he rubbed the sweat and blood from his face, the face of Pete Winwood entered his thoughts, the lips pulled back forever into a grimace of pain, the eyes not quite closed, the skin a waxy white. Once again that evening as it had when Joe had viewed what remained of Pete's body, Joe's stomach roiled with hot acid and threatened to explode. Now, water dripping from his own face, Joe closed his eyes to the horror but it wouldn't go away.

He had no idea how long he had stood there like that before he felt someone beside him. Joe didn't have to open his eyes to know his father was there with him.  When he opened his eyes and looked at his father, he expected to see that his father was angry with him. After all, he had made a promise and then turned around and broken it. But instead of the stern visage he anticipated, the look on his father's face was a deep concern.

Joe took the soft white towel Ben offered him and stood drying his face.

"Bad?" was Ben's one word question and Joe simply nodded in reply.

"How many?"

Joe stared into the towel for a long moment before he answered his father. "Three dead, another dozen injured, one of those probably won't make it till morning. I've shut the mill down, Pa."

"What happened? Charlie and that other young fella said the big blade hit something."

"Yeah, that's about right. But when the blade hit whatever it was, it shattered. Sent pieces of steel flying everywhere. Some of the men were hurt when they were moving some of the logs out of the way to get to other injured. They tell you one of the men killed was Pete Winwood?" Joe still hadn't looked up from the towel, so Ben reached over and took it from him.
"Yes, they did, son. Are you all right?" Ben asked softly, noting that there was blood on the towel. Laying the towel aside, he lifted Joe's chin with his only free hand. The face that looked back at him looked so awfully young, younger than the years Ben knew it had. But a closer, more probing look showed Ben the lines etched at the corners of the green eyes. He's exhausted, Ben thought, and scared.  He cupped his hand behind Joe's neck and felt the heavy brown curls across the back of his hand. It was a soothing gesture for both.

"You need some sleep, Joseph. Something to eat and then get to bed." Ben commanded but there was no tension in the words, just love.

"Pa, about my leaving this evening-" Joe started but his father's warm brown eyes stopped him.

"It's all right, son. I would have done the same thing. You did the right thing. Although Trevor and Charlie had a high old time getting your brother down those stairs. No, you did the right thing. I just wish you would have woke me up and told me about it."

"Why? You couldn't have done anything about it, Pa. And besides, when Doc Martin finds out how much you been out of bed, he's liable to tan my hide pretty good." Joe's soul had heaved a great sigh of relief that his father wasn't angry. Nevertheless, he knew that the battle he would fight later on would not be so easily won.

"Where little boy been? Hop Sing no wait suppah on little boy who not be home. Brothers, father all worried. You tell men to bring Mista Hoss down then you leave. What Hop Sing suppose to do with Mista Hoss on sofa? Now you make kitchen dirty again. Little Joe think way into house now through kitchen?" Hop Sing's loud upbraiding was followed by an equally loud string of Chinese directed at Joe's head as he and his father stood in the kitchen. Hop Sing had roughly shoved his employer to one side and stood shaking a finger under Joe's nose. Joe just stood his ground, peering down at his friend and staunchest ally within those walls.

"Would you just get the boy something to eat, Hop Sing." Ben gave the back of Hop Sing's head his best irritated scowl.
What Ben hadn't understood was that the string of what sounded to him like invective words was actually Hop Sing asking and reassuring Joe that all was right with their world and he would have him something to eat as soon as Joe left the kitchen.

By the time thin daylight was leaking through the curtains, Joe thought he had probably slept all of about five minutes. In actuality he had slept closer to six hours. It just didn't feel like it.  As he lay there, he began making a mental list of everything that needed attention and was trying to decide which of the list was important enough to try and handle himself and which ones he could delegate out.  But uncertainty was his greatest enemy. Uncertainty about what he could and couldn't do foremost.

Funny@@, he thought, when I am here in the house, I feel like a little kid, insecure and scared to do what I think I need to do. Take me outside and I know what to do. Go figure, huh? Guess all I have to do is stay out of the house! Can't do that though, not with that idiot Connors out there. Nah, he's in California by now. Or got a job in one of the mines. Okay, little boy, out of bed and get the day rolling. . . but oh this feels so good.

He heard again the words of one of the wranglers from that first ugly meeting in the yard:
"… he's one lazy son of a bitch! Won't get out of bed unless his old man drags him out!" Only this time the words were in his head.

Lazy? Put in a day like yesterday and call me lazy? People only see what they expect to see. The branding crew thinks I'm lazy cause I ain't where they can see me all the time. Same thing with the mill and loggers. And the fence crew. Oh God, I was suppose to meet with Trevor last night and go over the schedule with him. But he never said a word when I came in, just sat there playing checkers with Hoss. Guess I'll have to see about getting him back in here today. No, I've got to go meet with the families of those men killed. I have to. I'll have to arrange for their funerals. And I need to check on the men who were hurt, make sure they got everything they need. Them and their families. Then I've got to get out to the mill and see what caused all of this. And just how are you gonna do that, Joseph Cartwright, when you promised Roy Coffee and your father that you would stay home while Connors was on the loose? God, I could use some help here. I really could.

The tap on his door was so soft, Joe almost didn't hear it, so lost in his own miserable thoughts. He pulled himself upright in bed and said "Come in," afraid of what was lurking behind the door.  He was almost relieved to just see Paul Martin's gray head poke through the opening.

"Glad to see you are getting some proper rest, young man. You need it." Just hearing the tone the doctor was taking, Joe suddenly became very defensive, his usual tactic when being dealt with as a patient. "Don't go taking on like that. I won't stand for it and you know it," the doctor fussed, still standing in the doorway, glaring at the tousled young man.
Joe decided that his best weapon was silence and brought it out, arms crossed over his chest and waiting for the doctor to continue.

"How are you feeling this morning, Joe? Your father yesterday said you had had a go-around with the loggers the other day. And that business last night at the mill wasn't too pleasant either. How are you holding up?" and thinking that he was best out of reach, the doctor simply reclined against the doorway, assessing the man from afar. Yes, he looked tired and from the way he had grimaced slightly when he crossed his arms over his chest, probably feeling the effects of his activities of late. But all in all, Paul Martin decided that Joe was probably right when he gave his standard response of "Fine."

"For once, I am not going to argue with you, Joe. But I am going to ask one thing of you: keep your father resting more than he has been."

Joe threw his hands into the air. Knew I was gonna get blasted with that but how am I…?  He started to laugh then, realizing this was the same sort of battle waged between himself and his father when Joe was the one wanting to get up and go when Doc said not to. "I'll do what I can, Doc, but he is a stubborn man, you know." Then quicksilver fast, Joe sobered, remembering that Doc Martin had been out to the mill the night before as well. "That other man…?" was as far as he got when the doctor simply held up a hand to stop Joe's query.

"Didn't make it," he finished Joe's question and glanced away for a moment, composing himself before he went on. "He died about an hour after getting him back to town. Too much blood loss. His wife did get to spend a little while with him, though. The other men who were hurt, well, I intend to check on them as soon as I'm finished here. Heard you had Hoss up and around yesterday."

"Am I gonna get in trouble for that, too?"

"No, you're in enough trouble with Hop Sing for not coming down for breakfast that I couldn't load that on you too." The doctor straightened up, looking down the hallway. "Well, I need to check on patients who really need me…"

Hop Sing had just poured Joe another cup of coffee when they both heard the sound of horses pulling up in the yard. Since it was usually Joe's job to answer the door, he automatically started to rise from the table. Hop Sing pushed him back into his chair with the one word command "Eat" and went to the door.

Not another problem, please Lord. I don't think I could handle another one. Let this just be someone looking for directions or something Joe thought, half sick with dread. Then he heard the sheriff greeting Hop Sing, asking for Joe and a cup of coffee, in that order. As Roy came around the corner into the dining area, Joe started to rise from his place at the side of the table. Roy waved him back down and sat in the place Adam usually sat.

"Hope you got good news about Connors, Sheriff." Joe raised his eyebrows expectantly.

"'Fraid not, Little Joe. I was kind of hoping that you could see your way clear in letting me and the search party rest up a bit here this morning. Our horses are shot and the men are beat as well."

"Any thing you need, Roy, anything you need." Joe offered, then putting his napkin down onto the table, he rose. "Just one thing, though. I've got to get out and take care of some business today and I would appreciate it if you could hang around here until I get back."

Roy squinted over his cup if coffee. "What sort of problem?" Hop Sing silently slipped a plate of food in front of him, proving once again that he knew more ways to eavesdrop than the ordinary man.

Quickly, Joe told the story of what had happened the previous afternoon at the mill and impressed on Roy the fact that the Cartwrights always saw to the needs of their employees in a case like this. "And since Pa isn't able to travel right now, I think I need to be making those calls on those folks. And I need to do it today."

"Dadburnit, Hop Sing. How come I got to peel all these potatoes?" Hoss complained as he tried to reposition his casted leg across the square wooden table by the cold fireplace. Before him was a mountain of potatoes, some peeled, most not. Since having been helped downstairs, Hoss had been put to work as Hop Sing's assistant. He had peeled potatoes, turnips and carrots for the stew he knew Hop Sing was cooking. He had even helped the diminutive houseboy fold linens. It never occurred to him to tell Hop Sing "no". Using those three words in the same sentence were as foreign a concept to him as lacing up a lady's corset. He knew they existed but just not in his world.

"Why everyone in this family got to argue with Hop Sing? You just peel so everyone eat." As he took the peeled ones away, Hop Sing snorted just once. Couldn't let anyone else know he was secretly pleased to have the help.

Giving his head a weary shake, Hoss picked up another spud. That dadburn Joe, why'd he have to haul me down the stairs again? He could have drug Adam down here but no. Then he doesn't tell me the whole story why he's doin' it either. Roy has to be the one to tell me. Just like Pa, he is. Don't tell me everythin, keep me guessin'…well okay, he really didn’t have the time to. And he is carryin' an awful load right now. But when I can get around a little better, I'm gonna let him know…Nah, just let it go. He didn't mean no harm.

"No Boss, I think you better leave the pinto here today. Look at that front leg." Charlie said as he came into the barn and saw Joe starting to ready Cochise for saddling.

Joe had immediately dropped to the horse's front leg. Sure enough, the right knee was slightly swollen and hot to the touch. Cochise nudged his shoulder, as if to tell him that it hurt. Joe slowly stroked the leg, muttering soft little nonsense words to the horse meant to keep both calm as he looked for sign of an injury. He found none, just the swelling and the heat.
"Okay, Cooch. You get another day off. Charlie here is gonna cool that leg down and give you some extra attention-" but when he said that Cochise turned and glared at Joe as if to chastise him. Stroking the black velvety nose, Joe continued. "And when I get home, I'll come out and make sure you're okay? 'Kay?" But Cochise shook his head, the black mane and forelock flipping wildly to show displeasure. Heaving a loud sigh, Joe patted the horse's neck. "I can't take you out today but I promise…" and Joe let his thoughts die unspoken.  He had promised his father that he would do something as well but hadn't. Well, hopefully Cochise won't hold a grudge too long if it doesn't work out right, then chuckled a bit to himself. Even though it was a horse, he knew the horse would hold a grudge better than a woman scorned. Joe let his hand run down Cochise's side as he and Charlie left the pinto's stall.

"I got Buck ready for ya, Boss, and don't worry none about yer horse.  I'll take care of that leg."

Looking back over his shoulder, Joe caught the eye of the pinto. Then Cochise went back to munching hay, shifting a little off the sore leg and raising the hoof, as if to put as little weight as possible on the leg. If he hadn't felt the heat, Joe could have almost sworn that the horse was faking it, he was acting so funny about it all. Oh you're in on it now too? Keep me here while I really need to be out taking care of things. . . .

Buck was his father's horse and more used to the way his father rode than the way Joe did. The big buckskin, part Tennessee Walker, had a gait that none of the other Cartwright mounts had called a half rack and Ben had described the motion as being in a rocking chair. It made for the perfect mount for either an older rider or one that was bone tired. That morning, despite his rest of the night before, Joe decided that maybe Buck was the right horse for the day as he was still weary. And he had had Charlie saddle Buck with his father's saddle as well since it fit the horse better. Or at least that is what Joe said. What he had thought was that the seat had to be a little deeper and softer than his own. And today, he would need all the comforts he could get.

Joe was about to mount the big buckskin in the yard when he heard his father call to him from the porch. He thought he could just imagine what his father wanted to tell him, to remind him about staying there until Connors…

"Morning, Pa." Joe quickly and brightly called to his father, a smile on his face that he was a long ways from feeling.

"Joseph." Ben's white hair shone silver in the early morning light as he nodded in greeting to his youngest," Taking up a new profession are you?" and eased himself carefully across the yard where Joe now stood, next to Buck, reins in hand.
"Sir?" Joe gave his father a truly puzzled look as this wasn't at all what he was expecting.

"New profession? Horse stealing?" To that, Joe grimaced, a sight to which Ben couldn't help but give a small laugh.

"No, you are right, Pa. I should have asked but then you were supposed to be asleep. And I have already caught the Devil from Doc Martin about your behavior of late. So I thought that I should just go ahead and take Buck out this morning so you wouldn't be tempted to go riding into town. Now I am not going to stand here and argue with you. You get back to bed and let me get on with what I need to do today." Joe was warming into the role reversal very well by the time he got to the end of his tirade. He knew that his father recognized some of the same tactics Ben had used in the past.

"Where are you off to this morning?" and when Joe told him that he was headed into Virginia City to the one and only funeral parlor to take care of the necessary arrangements for the victims of the mill accident, Ben slowly nodded. Bodies wouldn't keep well in this heat and the first burials would most likely be today, this morning even. And the Ponderosa needed to have a representative there.

"And stop by the bank and John Nester's office as well," Ben suggested, naming the Cartwright lawyer. John knew the wishes of the Cartwrights in a time like this: extend any and all help to any of the bereaved families.  In the past, the Cartwrights had set aside monies for children to go to far away remaining family members. They had also seen many a widow over the rough transition time with a place to live and a job if they had wanted it. The Cartwrights were known far and wide as the best possible employer at a time like this for those mill workers and their families.

"I will Pa but I am also gonna go see Leeann Winwood. Last I heard she and Pete were expecting another baby. Now this.." A look of sadness passed over Joe's face like a shadow over the land. Years before Leeann had been widely spoken of as the most possible of all the Virginia City girls to become Mrs. Joseph Cartwright. It had only been Joe's reluctance to commit to marriage at that time that had made it not happen. So instead, Leeann had found Pete and quickly married him after a short two-week courtship. Their first child had been born within a year. After taking one look at the infant, Ben had a hard time keeping quiet for the little girl had pretty green eyes and lovely chestnut brown curls.  He thought for sure that the littlest Winwood looked suspiciously like the last Cartwright he had held as an infant. But no one else seemed to notice or comment, especially Joseph so Ben had kept silent as well. That little girl was now four years old and every time Ben saw her, he thought the same thing: that is my grand-daughter.

"Joe, Leeann is going to need a shoulder to lean on… A friend to help her through all this. Can you do it?" he asked softly, watching his son's face change.

"I know, Pa, I know. She's gonna need a friend and, yes, I can do it."

"No, I meant stay her friend and not…" Ben floundered to a stop as he lost words for what he was trying to convey.
Joe was quicker than his father. "And not something more?  No promises on that, Pa. I let her get away once before. But things changed when she married Pete. Changed for her, I mean. But for right now, I'd help her anyway I could. Her and her children. Now I gotta get goin'." With that Joe swung into the saddle and turned Buck from the yard.

Something Joe had said stuck in Ben's mind. He had said '…her children'. It sounded entirely different from if he had said 'their children', Leeann and Pete's.  Once again, Ben played with the uncomfortable thought that Joseph had sired a child raised under another man's name. And that Joe knew it.

The sun was heading for the western horizon when the last of the hurried funerals came to a close that hot summer day. It was the one funeral Joe Cartwright hadn't wanted to attend that day,  knowing it was going to be awkward to be there but that the town would have gossiped about it if he hadn't gone. It was the funeral for Pete Winwood. Looking across the open grave and the pine box, Joe had watched Leeann. He had met briefly with her earlier in the day but her distraught condition and family members had kept him at arm's length from her. Now all he wanted to do was grab her up and hold her, let her cry on his shoulder, comfort her. Pete's brother Joshua was there beside her, holding little Ruth by the hand, his arm protectively around his sister-in-law's heaving shoulders. Joe could make out her pale features behind the black veil and thought that she needed to be laying down somewhere before she fainted. And the black dress she wore only emphasized her swollen womb, just scant weeks from giving forth a new life.

Once the final words were said, those in attendance moved back towards the gate of the cemetery, but Leeann hung back, Joshua taking Ruth with him, saying he would get the buggy.  Joe saw her over his shoulder and once Joshua had passed him, had turned back to her, thinking that she might need help.

"You realize that half of Virginia City is watching you right now, don't you, Joe?" she whispered when he got close enough to her. She simply ached from crying and wanted nothing more than to just fall into a loving embrace and let the world go away.
"Yes, I do. And the other half of town is watching you. You know that I will do absolutely anything for you that I can, Leeann. Anything," he said, twisting his hat in his hands, not looking into her eyes but at their feet.

"I know that, Joe. Letting me stay on at the foreman's house there at the mill is going to help.  I'll decide once the baby is born what I need to do but for right now, I think I just need to stay where I am.  For Ruth's sake, you know," she said hoarsely, taking in the man before her. How different things were now, she thought.  How can I tell him that I truly loved Pete?
Settling his hat on his head, Joe offered Leeann his arm and helped her from the gravesite. He didn't care if the whole town started talking now. Leeann was worth it and so was his daughter.

The hour was late when Joe finally rode back into the yard that evening. But once again, the lights blazed from every window and the front door was open to catch any wayward cooling breeze. As he handed Buck off to Charlie, Joe could hear the sound of his two brothers laughing inside. He rubbed the back of his neck where that same cursed knot seemed to have taken up residence since the accident just, what? Three days ago? Has it only been three days? Seems like three years, Joe thought as he headed into the house.

He paused as he removed his hat and gunbelt at the bureau there by the front door. Hoss and Adam were both downstairs, casted legs propped on the square table before the cold fireplace, the checkerboard set between them. His father was ensconced in his favored red leather chair, reading. It was his father's greeting that pulled Joe into the family setting. He had really just wanted to slip upstairs and go directly to bed.

"Did everything go all right in town today, son?" Ben asked, laying his book aside.

Reluctantly, Joe sat on the end of the sofa, leaning back and closing his eyes as he answered in the affirmative.
"Roy was out earlier today. Raleigh Connors got himself arrested in Carson City for fighting. Connors shouldn't be any problem any more. He'll be headed to Yuma before the week is out." Joe took a deep sigh of relief upon hearing that news from his father. He had been watching over his shoulder for Connors, half wishing for him to show up and put an end to the fear Joe felt. Now he could go about his job of running the ranch without one hand on his gun all the time.
"What about the mill, Joe?  We have got to get it back up and running or we are gonna be in big trouble with the Ophir contract. What is it gonna take to get it back on line?" Adam was asking, anxiously.

"I closed the mill for a couple of days, Adam." Joe thought that Adam would know and simply understand that it was necessary.

"Did you check it out today, though. What jammed that blade? And the men that were hurt-" Adam pushed gently but Joe still erupted, coming to his feet, his fists clenched, his jawline and shoulders tight.

"I'll check it out in the morning, Adam.  I had other things to do today, remember? Right now, I'm going to bed" Joe flared then headed for the stairs. Adam put out his hand and stopped Joe with just the lightest of touches.

"I'm sorry, Joe. I had forgotten you were friends with Pete. And Leeann. Tomorrow will be fine. Once again, I'm sorry I jumped you like that. Guess it's the heat." Adam apologized.

For a long second, Joe stood looking at his brother's hand on his arm, listening to the words. With a slight turn he saw his father watching then Ben gave Joe the most fleeting of scowls followed by an almost imperceptible nod. It was as if his father had shouted at him from across the room to accept the apology.

Joe acquiesced. "Yeah, the heat, Adam. The heat just takes it out of all of us. Look, I'm done in so I'm going to bed. Good night." And then he turned and headed up the stairs, not hearing his family's voices telling him to sleep well.
Once Hoss heard the door to Joe's bedroom close overhead, he dared speak. "What's eating him, Pa? He's as touchy as a hungry bear just woke up from a cold winter."

"Your brother has taken on a huge responsibility all at once, Hoss. And it is weighing on him heavily. Add to that the two accidents in as many days. The way this ranch is run is something we all take for granted. That we all do our part to maintain the whole. It didn't dawn on me until just a while back just how much I rely on all of you boys to do your parts. And now, well, Joseph doesn't have that luxury. As he pointed out to me, he has to do it the way I did in the beginning: hands on and from horseback day in and day out. He can delegate all he wants but unless there is a Cartwright there in the flesh, some of our crews won't get the job done as we would like. And the Ponderosa is much bigger than when I rode it day after day. Bigger and more diverse."

"But he doesn't have to do it alone, Pa." Adam insisted.

"Yes, he does, Adam." Ben countered. And it surprised the two brothers that their father had said that. His usual counsel was that work was easier when shared and that they would of course help one another with it. Now he was saying the opposite. "Yes, Joseph has it to do alone. He has to be the one out there making decisions. We can't be out there in the fields, at the mill, and the logging camps so he has to be. And the crews need to see him making the decisions, giving directions, or they will lose faith in the Ponderosa and all that it stands for. So he has to do it by himself. But there is something we can do."
And when he saw his sons' eyes all turned towards him, he continued. "We need to support him when he comes home. Adam, you and I have done the same thing to him. Jumped him as soon as he came in the door, demanding answers before we even said hello. That isn't showing support."

By that time, Hoss was even looking down, ashamed to meet his father's steady gaze. Sure, all he had done was complain about things to Joe, little things mostly. But like his father had said, it wasn't what Joe needed either. Clambering to his feet, Hoss picked up the crutches he had fashioned earlier in the day and headed for the stairs.
"Here Hoss let me help you up those stairs." Jumping to his feet with the offer,  Ben hurried towards his big son, but Hoss was waving him off.

"Naw, Pa, if Joe can run the ranch by himself, I can make it up these stairs on my own. Besides, there needs to be somebody to help me up if I do fall. Come on, Adam, let's see what we can do on our own."

"Yeah, I think you're right, Mr. Cartwright.  We should be able to get that moved over to there and get things back up and running by the middle of the week.  Might take us a little longer to get that amount of board footage built up but we will." The new mill foreman Laf Ingersoll stood looking at the rough drawing in the dirt between him and Joe.

"Well, we just can't get that new blade here until September. Guess they don't grow on trees, huh? So you think that using the two smaller blades like that will work?" Joe was trying hard not to sound incredulous. It had been his idea that he had roughed into the dirt that afternoon, standing outside the mill while the crew inside was going about the job of cleaning and straightening things up. It had been three days since the accident that had cost four men their lives and others were not back to work yet. Joe had tried to explain to the men who had showed up at the ranch house yesterday that, all though they needed to get the mill back into operation quickly, everyone would understand if some of the men didn't return right away.
Laf had stepped to the forefront of the group of men standing there in the main room of the Ponderosa. The men had chosen him to be their spokesman.

"We know that, sir. But we saw the way you and your kin did for us when it happened. We think the best thing to do would be get that mill back in working order as quick as we can. Pete would have wanted it that way and so do we. We want to be back working real soon."

Joe had raised his hand to silence the murmurs of assent. "All of you men there will be paid your full week's wages."
"Yes sir, and we intend to earn 'em. All we have to know is that you want the mill open." Laf insisted.
"Sure we want it open and running but-" Joe started but Laf cut him off, grabbing his hand and shaking it quickly, telling him thank you.

"Okay, but Laf, you're bossman out there now. Okay?"

And Laf had smiled briefly and said, "Thank you, sir but I'll just take Pete's old job of foreman. You're the bossman, sir."
Now as they stood in the mid-afternoon sunlight, both men were pleased to see that they were right. Every man on the crew that was physically able had shown up that morning to get the mill back into operation. It had been hard at first, going into the building where their friends had died. Joe had been there and just to look around the room was hard for him as well, seeing the aftermath of the accident all over again. But he had shucked his jacket and started in, the men quickly following his lead. The one piece of depressing news had been that a new blade would take months to arrive, coming as it would from back East. That had forced Joe into re-thinking things and he had finally hit upon the idea of using two blades side by side in tandem on the main line to accomplish what the larger blade had.

"Okay, how long do you think it'll take to get them set up?" Joe asked the skinny blonde man who was now the foreman.
"Take us maybe a day, two at the most, sir."

Joe pulled his hat down a little further over his eyes and clapped Laf on the back. "Let's get it done then. And Laf, my name is Joe. Not Mr. Cartwright, or 'sir' and God knows, not 'Boss' either."

"Well, it's like this: when I looked over that evening and saw you working at helping the injured men here, I knew you didn't have to be here. But you were, right along side of the rest of us. And then I saw you at the buryings too and knew you didn't have to be there. I ain't never worked for somebody like you. You and your family care about the men who work for you, really care. So as far as I am concerned, you are 'Boss', sir." Laf then turned and headed back into the mill, shouting orders and leaving Joe standing in the dust and heat.

After Joe had left the mill, he rode his father's big buckskin over to the corrals where the horses were being held and worked for the Army. The Army representatives had sent word that they would be out at the ranch the following morning to take delivery of the new horses.  Joe wanted to give them one more once over before then. As he had ridden across to the corrals, the thought came to him that a week before he had been still working on these brutes but hadn't been back to them since.

Lifting his hand in greeting to the young wrangler working one of the horses, Joe sat his horse, a weariness growing over him as the late afternoon heat washed over him. The young man working the gray horse was good, Joe thought, but not as good as he was. Jealous? He thought.  Oh yeah, but better get over that. You got your hands full now. Too full to work horses? Wonder if this is how Pa felt when us boys started taking things over? Right now, I would love just to be right over there working that horse and not have to worry about anything else…

Buck shifted under him and brought his thoughts back to reality. He had meant to just stop by and see that the horses were ready and head on to the cattle crew. The time was coming up shortly when they needed to be cutting from the herd those cattle to take to Sacramento. There was no way Joe was going to be able to accompany the herd so he had to find a trail boss and do so quickly. Ruefully, he thought that this was the first Ponderosa trail drive not headed up by a Cartwright in the family history.

"Just another sign of the times, huh, Buck? Like me riding you? Only 'cause Cochise's still a bit touchy about that front leg. Oh, who am I kidding? Had Charlie saddle you this morning 'cause I needed an easy ride today. But don't tell Cochise that okay?" Smiling down at the horse's neck, Joe heeled the buckskin away from the corral and towards the cattle camp, thinking of rewarding himself with a hot bath and a good meal at the end of his day.

For the first time in a week, all four Cartwrights were gathered at the supper table that evening. It was a touch awkward for Hoss and Adam with their legs still heavily casted but they managed. They knew they had to since it was one of the things ingrained in them from childhood. Eating together, Ben was sure had kept them a family many times over when other families may have split over differences. But not his and as long as he was the family patriarch, it would continue to be a family ritual. Just like the pork roast, mashed potatoes and gravy and corn on the cob placed on the table before them.

"Tomorrow that Major Curtis from the Army will be here. Are those horses ready yet, Joseph?" Ben asked.

"As ready as I can get them, all things considered. I really haven't had time this past week. They may be a little rougher than what our horses normally are." Joe admitted, mentally raking himself over the coals of the "should-of-done-fire".

"And what are you going to do about driving those cattle down to the auction in Sacramento? We barely have the hands we need right now. Have you taken the time to get into town and see about hiring drovers?  And we need a trail boss too," Ben questioned, cutting into his meat awkwardly with his left hand, his eyes on his plate, not his son. Once again, the wish to be naturally left-handed as his son was ran through him.

Joe's appetite failed him completely. He had looked forward to being the trail boss on this year's cattle drive. Now there was no way it was going to happen. Life just wasn't fair sometimes.

"How's it going up to the logging camp? Any problems there?" Hoss asked, just before shoveling a forkful of mashed potatoes and gravy into his mouth.

Joe inwardly cringed, he hadn't been to the logging camp for several days.

"Glad to hear that you got the mill up and running again so quickly. But I'm not sure that Laf is a good choice as foreman down there. Are we gonna be able to meet the deadlines for the Ophir contract?" Adam pushed.

And just as quickly as the conversation had started, it died. Joe sat seething silently at his side if the table, feeling as if he were being grilled. He wanted to shout at them. To make them understand that he was trying to do the best that he possibly could under the circumstances. Why didn't they understand that? Why? The only reason he could find at that moment was that he wasn't doing enough. All the struggle of the past week to keep his temper, to keep things going and to earn the family respect for doing a good job had been for nothing. He felt as though he had failed not only their expectations of him but his own as well. And the self-doubt that had assailed him all his life came rearing back up, making him feel even less capable. Finally he could stand it no more. He carefully folded his napkin and laid it beside his plate, slid his chair back and wordlessly left the room, despite his father's calling his name several times to his back. Joe knew that if he said anything at all, it would be to just show his family that all the talk about him was right: he was a spoiled kid trying to do a man's job. And failing.
As they heard the front door close, Ben quit shouting. The clicking of silverware against china was the only sound besides the clock chiming out the hour. At last, Adam cleared his throat and spoke for all of them.

"We did it again. We jumped him like a cat on a mouse."

The thin sliver of lantern light coming from under the barn door gave away Joe's location when Ben walked out onto the porch a short time later. Ben had waited as long as he thought he possibly could for Joe to return to the house on his own. He had expected to hear a horse leaving the yard but when that hadn't occurred, Ben thought he would venture out and find his son in a more agreeable mood. Seeing the light coming from the barn he thought was a positive sign.

As Ben stood watching through the scant opening, he saw Joseph brushing his beloved pinto with long even strokes. Listening carefully, he only heard snatches of what his son was saying. They were words like "trying",  "can't", "right" followed a little more loudly and forcefully with "lazy", "shiftless", and "brat". Ben couldn't make sense out of them but had a general idea of what would be running through his son's mind.

"You ever wonder why Cochise likes being brushed?' Ben asked, slipping into the barn and coming to a halt just inside the halo of lantern light. The brush paused in mid-swipe but Joe didn't turn to face his father, just let his arm drape over the back of the horse. Cochise pulled his head around to that side and nudged Joe as if asking why he was stopping. The brush strokes continued silently and the horse went back to his dinner.

"I think it is because it shows that you care." Ben continued. He hadn't expected a response from Joe so he wasn't surprised when he hadn't gotten one. "Same way when we ask you about what's happening on the ranch, we're showing how much we care about your welfare, too." That got Ben a snort in reply. "Let me tell you that I am pleased with the way you're handling things, Joseph. I am also pleased that you have matured enough to control your temper of late. That pleases me more than anything else."

The brush stopped again. This time both arms went over the pinto's back and turned away from his father, Joe did his best to control his emotions, primary of which was anger.

"Oh yeah, you are real pleased with me aren't you, Pa?" but the tone in his voice was heavily laced with sarcasm. "We are about to turn over to the Army the worst string of horses we have ever had. God only knows how I am going to get the cattle down to the auction. The contract with the Ophir Mines is about to go up in smoke because I can't get the mill working any faster. Even if the mill was working at capacity, the loggers have slacked off, thinking they were way ahead when they weren't. So that puts us behind in timber to the mill. If you are pleased with the way I am handling things, then you have put your faith in the wrong one of your sons. I should have been the one on Blade that afternoon. That way you would have had Adam to take care of things. But there again, if he hadn't been on Blade, he'd have been on Hardhead and the whole accident that got you and Hoss hurt in the first place would never have happened."

"Joseph, Joseph, Joseph" Ben started towards his son's back, shaking his head sadly. He thought that his son had come to grips with the accident but the last outburst just showed that he hadn't. "I don't look at it like that at all." As he said those words, he reached out to put his hand on the slim shoulders before him. What happened next shook Ben Cartwright harder than any words his son could have ever shouted at him. It shook him down to the core of his being.

Joe moved away from his father's hand. On purpose. Ducking under Cochise's neck, Joe came to stand across from his father, looking over the horse's back. He took one long stroke down the horse's flank with the brush but kept his eyes glued to his father. Ben didn't think he had ever in his life seen Joe so angry.

"What does it take, Pa? What does it take to make all of you happy? I have absolutely no idea any more. So what does it take?  I have spent eighteen hours a day in saddle, riding from one problem to another. Settling one dispute after another. I have made more decisions that affected more lives over the past week than I ever have in my whole life. I have been elbow deep in the blood of horses and men. And I have buried friends. I have tried to do my best but it just doesn't seem like it is ever enough. So tell me, Pa, what will be enough?"

Ben thought of the words his son had not said. He spoke quietly. "Enough for what, Joseph? Enough for us to respect you for your capabilities? You have done far more than any of us has ever been expected to do by himself. Enough for us to love you? You have to do nothing for that. That is a gift freely given in this house and you know that. So, enough for what, Joseph?"

As though they were words written on a page, Ben watched the warring emotions on his son's handsome face: anger, fear, self-reproach, confusion, sorrow.  The green eyes reflected the gold from the lantern light and Ben almost turned from their intensity.

"Joseph, stop beating yourself up over things that are beyond your control. There is nothing you can do about the ranch needing more working hands than it can get. You did what you could to get the mill back on line as quickly as possible. And, son, accidents happen, even in the best run operations. As far as I can see, you have made only one mistake." Ben spoke in low measured tones as he moved to the side of the pinto across from Joe. "The only mistake you made is not believing in yourself." He carefully lifted his free hand and put it on Cochise's back, a few inches from Joe's hand.

"If you believe in me and think I am doin' the right things then why do I still feel like a kid getting interrogated every time I come home? It feels like you and Adam and Hoss are always checking up on me, making sure that I've done the right thing. Not trusting me. Just like you would do with a kid, Pa. Just like a kid. To you, I will always be a kid to be checked on, questioned. So it doesn't matter if I believe in myself or not. Because deep down, Pa, you don't."

With lightening speed, Ben reached and grabbed Joe's hand before his son could pull away from him again. He held it down, fast against the horse's back and would not let it go.

"You are right, Joseph. You are my 'child', my youngest one at that and I will always have a tendency to look at you that way. I look at you even now and remember the thrill of holding you for the first time right after you were born. But I also see the man you have become and it makes me proud. I don't know any other way than what I am doing to show you that I@B@ do@B@ trust you and that I @B@do@B@ believe in you. But you won't see that until you believe and trust yourself." Ben tried his best to put all the conviction he could into his words. @@But give me a chance, son, to deal with you as a man.  And forgive me when I see the little boy again he thought, looking into Joe's face. You are exhausted, Joe. You need to rest but you won't let yourself, will you? Let it go, let it all go. @@
Slowly, as if the thoughts had been spoken aloud, beneath his hand, Ben felt the tenseness flow out of his son's hand.

The sun was barely over the eastern slopes when the sound of many horses entering the yard penetrated the thick walls of the ranch house. With a jerk, Joe sat up in bed. He had intended to be up early that morning of all mornings. And here he had overslept. Joe leaped from the bed, threw on his clothes, grabbed his boots and headed for the stairs, nearly knocking Hop Sing over in the hallway. He managed to be dressed by the time he met the Army major on the porch, still running his fingers through his hair to comb it into some semblance of order.
"Major Curtis!" he welcomed, his hand extended. "Good to see you again. How about a cup of coffee this morning? Then we can go take a look at the horses."
Major Wayne Curtis had been the Army's quartermaster for the Nevada Territory for many years and bought more horses than he could remember from the Cartwrights. It was always pleasant to do business with the family and the young man before him was no exception.  He knew that the youngest boy of Ben's had taken control of the horses not long ago and when he had, the quality of the mounts bought by the Army had surprisingly increased. But one of the benefits of doing business with the Cartwrights was having a meal at their table. As he shook hands with Joe, he allowed that a cup of Hop Sing's coffee was a good idea.

Down by the corrals an hour later, the Major and Joe stood looking out over the small herd as the horses milled in the enclosure.
"Good horseflesh, there, Joe, as usual. But I'm guessing that they are a little greener than what I usually get from the Ponderosa, aren't they?" the Major said rather than asked and turned a cautious eye towards the younger man standing next to him. While they'd had their coffee, the major had learned of the incidents of the past weeks and although he felt for the family in general, he could not let that color his judgement when it came to the business at hand.
"Yes, sir. They are." Joe admitted sadly. "I ain't gonna try and dance around that one bit. If you didn't want them I would understand.  I might not like it but I would understand."
The Major couldn't help but notice that Joe had ended up biting his lower lip. "Didn't say I didn't want them. Just that they are a little rougher than what I am used to. That means my men are going to have to work them a little longer and that means that the price needs to come down. Or it means you have to work on them some more and I take late delivery."
"The contract has a penalty clause in it for late delivery, Major." Joe said, turning his back to lean on the rails of the fence." And, as I recall, it is a rather stiff one."
Slapping his gloved hands against the fence, the Major kept his eye on the horses. "Make your mind up, young man. What is it gonna be? Lower the price or late delivery? I need to get this wrapped up so I can get on down to Genoa. Rancher down there I need to talk to about supplying beef to Fort Tejon over in California."
When he heard the word "beef", Joe's ears perked up and he had to fight to keep a smile from his lips. "Why go all the way to Genoa for beef, Major?  You know the Ponderosa has the best in the Territory. Why don't we take a short ride and you can see for yourself."
By noon, the agreement was verbally reached. Four hundred head of prime Cartwright beef and twenty-five head of horses were delivered to Major Wayne Curtis. The Ponderosa would assist the Army in driving the stock to Fort Tejon but the bulk of the job would be the Army's.  The price concession Joe had made on the horses had been more than made up with the cattle deal. And what without having to go to the expense of hiring more men to drive the cattle to market, it looked like the ranch would make a small profit.  All that remained was the ink on the contract.
"Shall we take care of that after you have a chance to sample some of that beef, Major? I am sure Hop Sing has lunch ready by now." The gracious side of Joseph Cartwright was showing a mile wide and the Major laughed. It was hard not to like this young man.
"No, thank you anyway, Joe.  I need to see about how I am going to manage all this now that I have committed to it. If you don't mind, I'd like to bivouac the men here for the next few days."
"Sure enough, Major. But my pa would have my hide if I let you off the hook for dinner, too. So what do you say to dinner? At the house about six?"
"Agreed as long as we don't discuss business.  I have a feeling that dealing with you the Army is tackling a whole different breed of salesman."
Joe laughed, wondering what his oldest brother would have said about the Major's comment. Tipping his hat to the Major, he turned his pinto back towards home.  He had some explaining to do.

"You did what?" Adam roared, nearly losing his temper.  Joe had just told his father and two brothers over a late lunch of the deal he had struck with Major Curtis and Adam wasn't taking it well at all.

"I told you. The four hundred head of cattle that we were going to take to the auction in Sacramento are now going to the Army." Joe explained again, feeling the beginnings of a headache coming on.  He had really thought that once he had explained it to the family, they would simply accept it. But with Adam's lower jaw stuck out the way it was and his father's continued silence, Joe wasn't so sure now.

"And you got how much a head?" Adam shook his head when Joe gave him the figure for the second time. "We could have gotten at least another dollar to a dollar and a half in Sacramento. Pa, we have to find a way to undo this, this fiasco." Adam turned his darkening countenance to his father's end of the table, beseeching his interference.

"Sounds to me like Joe got us a good deal, Adam." Hoss spoke up from his side of the table. Joe gave him a tight smile.
"It would have cost us at least four hundred dollars to run those cattle down to Sacramento, Adam.  That is if I could have found enough drovers to do the job without losing half the herd. As it is, we'll be sending half our cattle crew with the Army men for about the next six weeks. They feed 'em and send 'em back to us once the herd reaches Fort Tejon. We have to pay those men, of course, but how many men do we lose at the other end of a trail drive? Usually half the crew doesn't come back, if my memory serves me right. Not this time, though. They have to come back here to get paid. Which means we have a better chance of having the men we need to bring the cattle back down from the high pastures this fall.  In the meantime, we can use those men to help bring in hay for the winter." Joe argued back, trying his best not to lose his temper.

Sometimes Adam Cartwright you can be just as hardheaded and stubborn as…me  Joe nearly spoke his thoughts.
Ben had been listening to the arguments, weighing and judging the merits of both sides. Yes they might have gotten more per head at auction but that was an awfully big "might". And Joe's logic concerning the men was right on the button. They did lose men at the wrong end of the trail drive and there obviously weren't the men available to hire any way. But more importantly, Ben saw something that Adam hadn't. Joe believed, truly believed, in that he had done the right thing for the ranch. As far as Ben was concerned, if the deal with the Army didn't get them a dime's worth of profit, he would support Joe's argument simply because Joe believed in it. It was time to speak up and show his youngest son that he could put last night's words into action.

"No, Adam. Joe is right. This gives us the best possible outcome for two huge problems. I agree with him.  Furthermore, I think he deserves a little praise for fast thinking and taking advantage of the opportunity presented." Ben raised his coffee cup in salute to his youngest. "But what about the horses, Joe?"

As much as Joe's spirits had soared with his father's praise of his handling of the cattle, they now fell at the mention of the horses.

"I lost some money there, Pa. Those horses weren't ready and the Major knew it just watching them in the corral. He said we could either re-negotiate on the price or he would leave them here a while longer for me to work the edges off them. If I did that, we would have been penalized for late delivery." The admission hurt Joe. The horses were his part of the ranch operation and to have them lose money on a valuable contract cut deep into his pride. Always before he could point to them as "his" success. Now he felt as though it was his own failure as well. He had tried to rationalize the failure. There just hadn't been the time for him to work the horses as he knew they needed. That had been his failure. Poor allocation of time, he had thought. But who could have perceived in advance that his time would have had to have been spent running the ranch the way he had?

"And just what did you wind up doing, little brother? Lose half the ranch?" Adam laid his napkin aside, but the petulance in his voice remained.

At that tone in his brother's voice, Joe's battle to keep his temper under control over the past weeks failed completely. The explosion, although silent, filled the dining room so completely that there was no room for anything else. Before Ben could even open his mouth to speak, Joe was on his feet, his hands clenched into fists at his sides. Everyone could hear Joe's ragged breathing as he fought to control himself, could see his eyes go to hard emerald green slivers.

"Let me remind you, Adam Cartwright, that it was your doing that I didn't have the time to work those horses. You had told me that I couldn't 'play' with them any more because Hoss needed help with the branding. That it was your being able to handle a horse like Blade that caused the accident. You may be a good rider, Adam, as long as you are just going from one place to another. But you have to be able to relinquish control to your horse when you are cutting and roping. And that is something you will never be able to do: give up control. That is your problem right now with me running the ranch. You can't control me." To prove his point he stalked from the room, leaving his family in stunned silence. Again.

Once they heard the unmistakable sound of a horse leaving the yard, Ben looked up from his end of the table at his two remaining sons. Adam had his forehead resting on his clasped hands over his plate. Hoss was looking from one end of the table to the other, wondering who was going to speak first.

"You know he's right, Adam. All the way around, Joe's right." Hoss started but Adam cut him off.

"No he's not right, Hoss. Joe has to see that. The Ponderosa is more than just horses. It's cattle and timber. It's the mill, too. It all has to work together. Like the mesh of gears. If one part messes up then the whole is thrown off balance and it can all come tumbling down around our ears. We need the horses he trains not just for the Army contract but for our own use as well. We need the draft horses he trains for the logging operation. And our cattle. We need the horses he breaks to do more than just move the cattle. They need to be able to control the herds too. And how far do you think we could walk to get to town for the mail? To get supplies? If Joe is allowed to falter with his end of the ranch, the rest will end up hurting too. And what good are those horses, well trained as he gets them, if there are no cattle, no timber, no Ponderosa? Absolutely none, Hoss." Adam's fist crashing to the table to emphasize his point made the dishes jump.

Ben laid aside his napkin and looked at the other two men who shared what was left of the meal. "This ranch is not just horses and cattle and timber. It goes beyond contracts, and profits and losses. Above everything else, this ranch needs to stand for more than just material things. It needs to stand for cooperation between all of us who bear the name Cartwright. So you were right Adam when you said that it has to work together or it all falls apart. But it also needs to stand for belief in one another. For trust in each other. Last night I did my best to convince Joseph that he needed to trust himself because I did. And I still do. I trust each of you as well and I know that you trust each other. So why is it so difficult to trust Joseph?"
"Maybe because he's a still a kid, Pa," Adam shot back.

"And as long as you continue to treat him as such, Adam, that's how he will react to you. I think it's time you let your brother grow up. I know I have to." With that said, Ben arose from the table, sorry that he had ever sat down.

Adam sat on the front porch as the sun beat down that afternoon trying to enjoy what cool breezes there were. With the plaster cast on his leg and the constant ache of cracked ribs along one side, his misery level was about as high as the temperature. The raking his father had given him about Joe hadn't helped either. And even though he had the ranch's book work spread before him and a pencil in his hand, his thoughts were far from dollars and cents. Leaning back in the chair with his arms crossed over his broad chest, Adam let his mind wander free.

He's a reckless kid who needs a short rein. Pa'll never rein him in. Hell, no, he's Pa's baby and as such can do no wrong. Doesn't Pa understand that that will get Joe killed one day? Joe has got to learn to control himself. Ha! The words he used coming back to haunt me: control. Yes, little brother, you are right. I can't control you and that makes me mad because I don't think you can control yourself half the time. And without some sort of control, you are going to bring grief to this family. I couldn't stand to see that happen to Pa. So, yes, I will try and control you until you do it yourself. But it won't be for your sake. It'll be for Pa's sake. And Hoss'. And mine.

Trust, Pa said to trust you, Joe. That I can't do. I've pulled you out of too many messes that Pa has no idea about. Trust? Oh yeah, I trust you all right. Trust you to screw things up and do the wrong thing at the wrong time. I trust you to lose your temper and pull your gun or your fist before you think things out. I trust you to chase any filly that crosses your path. It'll be a toss up as to what eventually kills you, little brother, a cheat in a card game or an irate cow-poke when he finds you playing with his girl.

Why do I fight with you all the time? Why? It would be so much easier to just let you go, pay you no mind what so ever. But I can't do that, can I? Why? Because I look at you, Joe, and see you living the life I wish I could have had when I was your age. And that makes me mad. You have had everything handed to you on a silver platter. The only want and hunger you have ever known you have brought on yourself. You have never had to question your father's love because he has always been there for you. Not like when he went away to New Orleans for half the year and comes home with a new wife. God, how I resented Marie in the beginning. She took Pa away from me when I needed him the most. Then you were born and he was so taken in by you. I remember him sitting and holding you for hours at a time in the evening. Sometimes Hoss would curl up there on his lap with you. There was never room for me. I was just pushed out of Pa's life when you came along, Joe. And now I watch him dealing with you. He reaches out and touches you when he talks with you. He never did that with me. Sometimes I just wish he would have given me half the affection he shows you.

"I asked if the cat caught your tongue, son," and Adam jumped from his reverie at the sound of his father's voice beside him. Glancing up he saw the two full wineglasses his father held.

"Sorry, Pa, I was just thinking." He accepted one of the glasses as his father sat down at the table with him.

"Must have been some pretty deep thinking. I think I called your name a dozen times before you even knew I was here. Want to talk about it?"

On yeah, I really want to discuss your shortcomings as a parent, Pa. Getting blasted earlier wasn't enough for me. Here, let me tell you some of the things my baby brother has done that would wilt that high and mighty trust you have for him.

"Just ranch concerns is all, sir."

Ben took a sip of his wine then set the glass on the table. He used his free arm to resettle his broken one inside his shirt, all the while watching Adam.

"You sure that's all it was?" Ben knew Adam was lying to him. "You know you and Joe have a lot of things in common. You both turn the ladies' heads. I've watched you both laugh uproarishly at the same things that leave Hoss and I completely baffled. And whether you want to admit it or not, Joe is just as smart as you are, Adam, even though he didn't go off to school. When you both get angry, you both stick your chin out and clench your jaws closed.  And both of you are stubborn, hardheaded men." Then Ben paused, gauging his eldest's reaction when he said "And neither one of you can lie worth a tinker's dam to me."

Adam gave his father a little half smile before he raised the glass of wine for a sip. "I was just thinking that maybe you were right earlier. I need to let Joe grow up. But if I do that, I'm not sure I could live with the consequences. You told me that we needed to trust one another and for me to trust Joe is a hard thing to do. I'm not sure I can do it."

"Why not?" Ben asked and reached out and covered one of Adam's long fingered hands with his own. "I did it for you." And as he arose to go back into the house, he stopped and let his hand fall to Adam's shoulder. "Now you do it too."

Even though he had been angry when he left the ranch house that afternoon, Joe hadn't done it on the spur of the moment. When he had come home for lunch and to share what he considered good news concerning the sale of the cattle, he had asked Charlie to saddle Chubb for him to ride up to the logging camp. Chubb was a long ways from being his mount of choice but he figured that the big beast needed a work out after being stuck in the barn and paddock for the better part of the last two weeks. And the climb up to the ridge where they were cutting would have been hard on Cochise's recovering knee. So he was up on the big black when he rode into the camp later that afternoon.

Before he had gotten to the logging area, he knew something was wrong. There should have been the sound of trees falling and axes ringing through the air in abundance. There was nothing to greet him but bird song as he topped the last rise to the ridge. As he had sat looking down into the camp area, he should have seen men coming and going, skids loaded with logs destined for the mill, teams dragging logs to the loading areas. What he saw instead was enough to rip his heart out. There were men down there in the camp all right, but they were laying around, not working. He rolled his shoulders, feeling that ever-present knot between them again and pulled his hat down further onto his head before he nudged the Morgan down the slope and into the camp.

Some of the men had the presence of mind to scramble to their feet when they recognized the horse and rider coming through camp. Others were too busy with their card games or their bottles to notice much. As the black horse made his way slowly towards the foreman's tent, more and more of the men stopped what they were doing and watched its progress.
By the time Joe pulled Chubb to a halt in front of the tent, the only sound in the whole camp came from the tent. Inside Joe could hear the sound of a woman laughing drunkenly followed by the low guffaw of a man. Joe stepped down from Chubb and pulled his revolver from its holster. He aimed it towards the sky and pulled off one round then shoved it back into place. The sound of gunfire had the desired response as Big Bill Sanford, the Cartwright foreman for the loggers stumbled from the tent, holding his pants up with one massive paw while the other sought a weapon of any sort. He pulled himself upright when he recognized the man in front of him.

"What's this all about, Bill? Why aren't these men working?" Joe hissed, fighting to master his own growing fear. He could see the anger in the man before him. Bill Sanford was a big burly man, with hands big enough and strong enough to handle the big double bladed axes single-handed. When Joe had fought with the loggers just weeks earlier, Bill had been outwitted early on and had lost his balance among some fallen limbs. Now, if a fight started, Joe knew he was in trouble. It would be one on one with Bill.

"It's kinda a holiday, Joe. The mill was closed down for some time so I give the boys some time off too. And since I heard that you Cartwrights paid them mill boys, my boys gonna get paid for their time off too," Bill huffed into his scraggly red beard and finished pulling his suspenders up over his massive shoulders.

"Well, you're wrong Bill. Now get these men up and working right now. There is a contract deadline that needs to be met." Joe squared his shoulders, feeling the eyes of every logger on him. He turned to meet those eyes even though he knew what he would hear and feel next.

"No, you're wrong, kid. We're gonna take some time off and I don't think there is too much you can do about it, now can you?" Bill's fetid breath came across Joe's shoulder like stench of a long dead carcass.

Why does everyone call me a kid? Joe thought but before he could even raise a fist, he felt Bill's hand grabbing his shoulder in a vice- like grip that spun him around to face the logger. But Joe used the motion forced on him by the bigger man and brought his right fist into the other's belly. It surprised the man and he stepped back to assess his opponent.

The word spread like wild fire throughout the camp. That scrawny Cartwright was back and getting ready to take on Big Bill. Before another punch could be thrown, the circle of loggers closed around the big burly red-haired giant and the wiry young man.

"All right now boys. I don't want no interfering," Bill called, almost laughing he thought it was going to be so easy to hang this little critter up on the big black horse he had rode in on and send the pieces back home to his papa. It didn't bother Bill that this was his employer's son. Old Ben Cartwright knew about the bull of the woods being the headman in any logging camp. It took a man to really to have that title. And when this pup had been there earlier and fought all comers, most were either too tired or too drunk to do too much good. Things were different now, Bill thought. He had a score to settle and a point to prove.
Little did Bill know that he was fighting with an unseen demon in Joseph Cartwright. When Bill had called him a boy, Joe took all the anger and frustration he had felt in dealing with his family, all of the feelings of disappointment with himself, and channeled it into his fists. Joe also had a score to settle and a point to prove and Bill would just be a convenient target for both.

Bill balled one fist and lashed out at Joe, hoping to catch him full on the jaw and send him reeling. He missed when Joe ducked and came back with an upper cut that would have pushed lesser men off their feet. As it was, it simply knocked Bill back two steps into the tent behind him. Joe pursued him.

Bill knocked Joe to one side as he regained his balance, one hand swiping away as though at a fly. The move sent Joe backward onto the plank table. The logger followed, his hands reaching for the smaller man's throat. Joe curled his legs and kicked out, pushing Bill back into the crowd of men. He tried to roll to his side and regain his feet but Bill came roaring back before Joe could gather himself. Twice Joe felt the fists connect with his stomach then one sliced passed his jaw, a knuckle barely grazing it. It was enough to put Joe back onto the tabletop.

Once again, the red-haired giant took aim at Joe's throat but this time he was able to roll away before the hands found him. Joe could feel the blood flowing from where the last blow had opened a line up his jaw and his back was screaming with white-hot anger at him. With one hand, Bill pushed the intervening table away and advanced on the slight form that held his attention. To his surprise, the youngster hadn't moved but stood his ground, unaware that not a foot behind him was one of the huge towering trees that had given his family's ranch its name. Bill grinned, showing his crooked yellow teeth. With a two handed shove, he pushed young Cartwright back into the tree with enough force that most could hear when the breath left Joe's lungs in a whoosh. He then made the mistake of closing in.

Bill put his forearm across Joe's throat, blocking any possible way for air to get back into the collapsing lungs of the smaller man. Joe pulled at the arm holding him against the tree, feeling darkness reaching for him. He tried to shove the bigger man away but it was useless. Finally, he summoned what he had left and put his boot heel down hard onto the bare foot of the logger. When the man simply grunted, Joe did it again and that time caught the foot full on. It was just enough for Joe to be able to break the hold. Bill had backed away just a few steps. Howling with anger now that his little challenge was turning into a bigger problem, Bill gathered one mighty fist and drove it at Joe's head.

When Bill had backed away, Joe had nearly lost consciousness so he was falling when Bill's fist streaked by his head and landed in the tree behind him. Joe doubled his own fists together and hit Bill beside the ear, forcing the man to his knees. The shock of the blow up Joe's own arms nearly made him cry out in pain. As though in a nightmare, Joe felt his arms go numb.

The logger made a grab at the legs next to him, knocking Joe to the ground. They rolled in the dirt and pine needles, clearing the men in their path. All the while, Joe struggled just to get away from the man, kicking his legs futilely against the restraining arms of the big man. If Bill had known that Joe's arms were virtually useless, his tactic might have changed. But he didn't, and that gave Joe the edge and the time he needed.

Think Joe think. You can't hit him hard enough. Do something different. But what? My God, what? Joe was thinking, panic setting in as he saw from the corner of his eye that not five foot from where he and Sanford lay grappling and kicking, was the cookfire blazing. What would Hoss do? Hit him once and he would stay down. Can't do that.

Sanford raised up to get a better hold on the body beneath him just as Joe kicked out hard again. The heel of Joe's boot grazed his opponent's temple, knocking him backwards and stunning him.

Joe scrambled to his feet. The pain in his back was nearly unbearable, coming in waves washing over him, threatening to rob him of coherent thought. But as bad as it was, Joe knew that Sanford could and would do more damage. Some way he had to put a stop to it all before the logger figured out just how close Joe was to being at his complete and utter mercy. As he stood waiting for the big logger to come to his senses, Joe's breathing came in ragged gasps. The thought crossed his mind that he could very probably die at the hands of the man before him.  If he only knew how hopeless I felt right now. . . .

The red-haired giant had gotten to his feet. He was slightly breathless and stood for a moment, his hands resting on his knees as he gauged the young man standing before him. The kid had guts he thought, just standing there, his hands not even making fists. Bill saw the man start to waver and decided on his last course of action. He would end the fight with the young Cartwright pinned to the massive Ponderosa pine right behind him. In his mind, the logger could see the kid's bloody features pressed into the slab bark. The kid would carry those scars for the rest of his life. That would teach him.

His lips drawn back into an ugly snarl, Bill Sanford, arms outstretched, hurled himself at Joe Cartwright. Joe saw him coming and knew it would all be over with in a split second if he didn't do anything so he simply dropped to his knees into the dirt. Sanford tripped and was unable to stop his forward motion. After hitting the tall pine, he dropped like a stone, unconscious, and unmoving.

There was stunned silence in the clearing. Not one of the loggers spoke. They had never expected Big Bill to be put down by the slighter built man and they were truly shocked.

Unable to rise from his knees, Joe looked around at their faces, looking for a friendly one. He saw none but there were no hostile ones either. Fighting the waves of pain, Joe didn't even try to stand. He pulled the only name of a long-time logger from his memory.

"Where's Johnny Price?" he shouted and heard a few murmurs as the short bandy-legged logger came to the front of the massed men. "You're crew leader up here now, Johnny. You got two jobs this afternoon. First off, get these men back to work. NOW! And second, I want Sanford off the Ponderosa by nightfall. Do you understand me?"

"Sure Joe, whatever you say. You're the bull here," and turning the other man began shouting orders. Within minutes the area was cleared of all but himself and the unconscious Sanford.

Pushing himself upright took sheer will power but Joe did it, swaying on his feet. He was thankful that Chubb stood just a few steps away as the pain lancing down his legs threatened to put him back onto the ground. Joe's right arm was beginning to have some feeling return and he forced his hand to reach and grab the saddlehorn. Joe leaned into the side of the big black horse as nausea built in the back of his throat.

"This had to be the day I ride the biggest damn horse on the ranch. If you were Cochise I might be able to make it up but I don't know about you big fella." Joe whispered to the animal. The horse looked back at him, waiting it seemed for the man to mount and not understanding why he didn't. Bothered, the horse took a few tentative steps to the side, virtually dragging Joe with him. Then he stopped and looked back at Joe, waiting. When Joe made no move to mount again, the horse took a few more steps to the side. And again Joe, his hand clenched around the saddle horn, hung on. Just as he was beginning to wonder how he would ever get on the horse, he saw that the big Morgan had stopped beside the plank table. Easing around to the right side of the horse, Joe sat on the table and gritting his teeth against the pain, swung his legs onto it.  As dark spots danced before his eyes, Joe rolled to his knees, grabbed a hold once again of the saddle horn and laid his body over the back of the horse. With an involuntary gasp of pain, he was able to swing his left leg over the broad rump and he settled into the saddle. Hunched over in pain, Joe prayed for enough guidance for the horse to get home.

"I don't know what has detained Joseph, Major.  As I said earlier, he has been pretty busy these last weeks running the ranch on his own." Ben chatted with Major Curtis as they enjoyed their after dinner brandy. Hop Sing had gone all out with the meal: roast beef, baked potatoes, a variety of vegetables and the best hot rolls the Major thought he had ever had. Ah yes, dinner on the Ponderosa was a veritable feast whenever he visited and tonight had been no exception. The only drawback to the evening was that the youngest member of the family was not home. The Major had had the new contracts drawn up that afternoon and had wanted to have them signed so he could be on his way before the end of the week. And he had wanted Joe to be the one who signed them since the deal had been struck with him. But the young man had not appeared at dinner. Although he had caught a few odd glances between the other family members, he thought nothing of it.

Adam and Hoss had shared a few private words with one another concerning the whereabouts of their little brother. When Hop Sing had told them that Joe had left on Chubb, they took that as a good sign that he would return in his own good time. Even though Hoss was put out that Joe had ridden his horse. Adam pointed out that Joe wasn't liable to damage the animal in any way shape or form. He had likened Joe to riding Chubb as a fly landing on Hoss' nose: you saw it but you just didn't feel it a whole lot.

Now that it was fully dark out and the meal was over, both of the younger Cartwrights were having second thoughts about their missing member.

"Well, Ben, Lieutenant Morgan and I have several days of planning ahead of us if we are going to be taking horses and cattle with us to Fort Tejon. I really do wish that Joseph had seen his way to be here to sign those contracts." The Major sipped his brandy. The lieutenant had refrained from drinking and his superior thought him a supercilious bore but he was the Major's aide-de-camp and, as such, had been invited to partake of dinner as well.

There was a knock at the door and Lieutenant Morgan stepped over to answer it. Seeing it was one of their patrol, he stepped out onto the porch, pulling the door closed behind him.

"What is it, private?" he asked sharply then, looking to where the private was pointing, saw a big black horse with the form of a man hunched over in the saddle.

"I believe, sir, that that is Mr. Cartwright. He rode in a few moments ago but didn't dismount. When I went over to him, he just opened his eyes and looked at me. I think he's hurt, sir." The lieutenant and the private walked over to the rider cautiously. It was indeed the youngest Mr. Cartwright and Morgan sent the young man back to get the family.

Joe felt the hands reaching for him. He knew that to move brought pain but he also knew he couldn't stay on Chubb much longer. So even though he hadn't wanted to, Joe let himself go with the hands. Halfway out of the saddle though a massive muscle cramp seized his back and he cried out in pain. The cramp was of such intensity that Joe had the distinct impression of being pulled apart. When it passed he found he was laying on the ground, his father bending over him, stroking the side of his face and calling his name. He could hear orders being given as if off in the distance but he kept honed in on his father's voice, the feel of his father's hand. Another voice then many hands were lifting him just a tiny little bit but it was enough to send waves of pain down his back and legs. Then his father was back, telling him they were going to take him into the house but it didn't matter to Joe. All he wanted was for it, the pain and the agony it brought, to all to go away.

The Major and his men picked up the corners of the blanket they had gotten under Joe. Ben had started to reach for it as well but the Major has quietly insisted that Ben needed to just hold Joe's head still. "Just let my men and I do the lifting, Ben. You keep him focused on something else. Keep him calm." It was awkward, they managed to carry Joe into the house and up the stairs into his room.

Hop Sing had been a mute witness to the whole happenings in the yard and then in Joe's room. On silent slippered feet he glided down the stairs and back into his realm. He gathered the flat irons he used to iron with and slipped the handles from them to place them on the flat topped cook stove.  He went to the basket where earlier in the day he had brought in the dry laundry and pulled out two large towels and draping them over chair backs, began to warm them. Content that he had started things into motion, he went back to clearing the table of the evening meal, taking dirty china and silverware away. Still worrying and checking the towels and flat irons every few minutes, Hop Sing made another pot of coffee. Finally he thought the irons were hot enough and taking them into the towels, he folded the warm fabric around them and headed quickly up the stairs.

He was frightened by what he saw. Another spasm had just grabbed Joe and he was arched nearly off the bed, turned to one side. Ben had grabbed him by the arm but there was nothing anyone in the room could do to lessen the pain. And just as quickly as the pain came, it left and Joe fell back on to the bed breathless. Hop Sing took the opportunity to slip the two warm bundles under Joe's back, one at the small of his back, the other between his shoulder blades.

"Ben, you have to get him to relax. Talk to him. Distract him any way you can. Part of his problem is that he is anticipating the spasms and tensing up for them. Take his mind off it and maybe they won't be so bad." The Major did indeed feel for the young man and his family. He was about to offer more advice when Hop Sing touched his sleeve hesitantly and motioned towards the hallway.

"Thank you, honorable sir, for your help. Perhaps you send man for doctor?" Hop Sing, although it was totally against his real character, tried to be meek before this man he didn't know that well.

"I believe Mr. Cartwright did that right away. How long is it liable to take to get help here? My staff and I really need to be getting back to camp but I hate to leave the situation like this. Ben didn't need this added to him. This puts the whole family out of commission. Helpless."

The Major should have caught the angry glint in Hop Sing's eye but didn't. Whole family indeed. Mistah Adam and Mistah Hoss may have broke legs and Mistah Ben have arm hurt but Hop Sing doin' just fine. Now get from house before I bring disgrace to family and ask you to leave. Helpless indeed…and here I cook good for you this night.

"Doctor be here very soon. Hop Sing can help handle things now. Thank you for help." And even though he wanted to push the Major down the stairs, Hop Sing let him walk down them instead. It just wouldn't do to have another casualty on their hands this evening.

Adam and Hoss both looked up expectantly when they heard the voices at the top of the stairs. They had indeed been left helpless as the soldiers had carried their brother into the house.  The feeling of being of no use was one foreign to both men, especially where their family was concerned. Adam had always felt that he had proprietary rights to his brothers' well being and up bringing. As the oldest, it was a task he had assumed the first time Inger had let him hold his brand new brother Hoss. The job of being a big brother had a lot of responsibilities that came with it, she had told him. One of those responsibilities was trying to keep the younger ones from harm. It hadn't been hard with Hoss but with Joe it had taken on mammoth proportions.  The boy just knew how to get himself into trouble more ways than Adam knew to keep him out if trouble. And now what ever trouble it was Joe had gotten into had also netted him some serious pain.

When the first scream from up the stairs had had ripped through the house, Hoss had lurched ungainly to his feet. Realizing he could do nothing but wait what a hard thing for the big man to do.  Like Adam, the feeling of being helpless was painful. He had always been called upon to use his massive strength to help his family: move this, hold that. But his steadying influence was just as powerful as his brawny arms. Looking at his hands clenched in his lap as he sat on the sofa now, he remembered back to a time once long before when he had felt that same way.  It had been the day they had buried Marie. Hoss had had no way to comfort his father, much less his adored baby brother. Adam had spoken such grand words of solace but Hoss'd had no words so he did the only thing he could for his little brother that day: he had gathered him into his arms and rocked him while the small child cried himself to sleep. Now that small child was a grown man but Hoss would have done the same thing if it would help Joe. But maybe it would have helped Hoss more.

"What are we gonna do, Adam?" Hoss asked. When Adam merely shook his head and looked away, Hoss' worry level nearly doubled. For Adam not to have an answer was nearly unheard of.

"Back injuries are tricky things to deal with, Hoss. They can clear up in a couple of days or never. And you just can't tell sometimes. But the only thing we can do right now is pray that our little brother can handle it either way it falls."
Hoss' face scrunched into an almost scowl. Adam hadn't needed to tell him to pray. Hoss' connection with the Almighty was a constant in his life and when the first man in the door had said that Joe was hurt, Hoss' had immediately sent a missive Heavenward. "Joe is plenty tough. He's shown us the past few weeks that he can handle just about anything. And don't you forget it, big brother."

The ranch hand sent to fetch Doc Martin from town returned empty handed. He reported that the doc was at an outlying ranch and wasn't expected back until morning. The hand had left his message at the doctor's office and come straight back.
Major Curtis had tried his best to step in and take command of the situation but was frustrated by the fact that even for a town the size of Virginia City, there was only one competent physician. He turned to his aide and instructed the lieutenant to have a man ride to Carson City.

"Major, begging your pardon, sir, but before that man could get to Carson City and return with a doctor, Doc Martin could be here. We just need some patience." Adam said, trying to keep his temper. More and more in dealing with the calvaryman that evening, Adam felt himself becoming more short-tempered. He had wanted to send the man packing early on but why, he couldn't put a finger on.

When Hop Sing had heard that Doc Martin wasn't coming until possibly the morning, he made a decision of his own. He slipped out the kitchen door and sought out Charlie in the bunkhouse. He gave the old man a slip of paper with curious scribbles on it and asked him to deliver it to a particular address in Virginia City's Chinatown.  He could tell Charlie wasn't too keen on going into that part of town and Hop Sing would have rather gone himself but that wasn't practical. Now in the very small hours of the morning, he wondered if he had done the right thing.

In the room upstairs, much had changed from the first few frantic minutes. Joe laid flat on his back, the pain not coming in waves any longer but as a constant pressure between his shoulders and on down his back and into his legs. His hands felt as though they were asleep, heavy and motionless. Even though it hurt when they raised him a little to slip the heated towels under his back, the following sensation made it worth while. For just that little while that the heat was radiating through his muscles, it felt so good. But then the pain and tenseness would return with full and renewed vigor. Sometime during the night, his father had given him a hefty swig of brandy and it had taken the edge off and he had dozed for a short while. When he had awoken just a short time ago, he had seen his father sitting beside his bed, asleep. His father looked so worn out.
The pressure was building again. It was as though muscle and tendon were fighting bone within him, pulling at each other with white-hot fingers. Although Joe laid absolutely still, his breathing became ragged and labored as though he were running hard. Finally he could stand it no longer and with a grimaced cry, he half rose from the bed, trying to move away from the pain he took with him.

Ben was immediately awake, trying with his one good arm to restrain his son's movement. But the intensity of the pain was such that Joe nearly succeeded in rising clear from the bed. Vaguely, Ben had heard the door behind him open as he had laid his arm across Joe's chest but it wasn't until he saw the long fingered hands on his son's shoulders that Ben became fully aware of the other individual in the room. The hands there closed over the straining tendons and muscles until the knuckles whitened, then loosened and tightened again, all in quick succession. And just as they tightened for a third time, the spasm stopped and Joe fell back to the bed, eyes closed and breathing hard.

The hands belonged to an ancient Oriental woman. Her eyes were covered by milky lens of cataract blindness and her hair was thin wisps of gray. Her clothing, dark in color, hung about her rail thin frame. Even if she had of been able to stand upright, she wouldn't have come any higher than mid-chest to Ben. He had the distinct impression that he had seen her about Virginia City but he wasn't really sure.

"This is  Tai Weh, Mistah Ben," Hop Sing spoke up, introducing the old woman, then he spoke rapidly to her in their own tongue. "She is well known in Chinatown. She help Lil' Joe."

"Thank you, Tai Weh, for coming but.." Ben started to pull the old woman from Joe's unmoving form, afraid for both his son and the old woman. It was obvious that she could not see but as he watched, she ran her hands across the tops of Joe's shoulders and down both arms.

It was Hop Sing's turn to pull and he pulled at his employer. "She know ancient art of medicine. Can help Lil' Joe be better."
Her singsong voice whispered out into the noise of the room. "I can help him but not with this distraction, Hop Sing. Tell the father to be silent or take him from the room."

"No, please," Joe begged. He had understood the woman plainly and didn't want his father to leave. He quickly fell into the language that he had shared with Hop Sing since childhood. "Let him stay, please. When he sees you aren't…" and another wave of pain came washing over him, taking his breath away.

Ben came to a complete halt when Joe had spoken, obviously to the old woman, his tone soft and reverent. He had long suspected that Joe spoke and understood their diminutive houseboy better than he ever let on but to be fluent enough to speak with another was a surprise.

Her hands still tracing the lines made by the constricting muscles across his shoulders, she asked "Where does the unpleasantness start, little one?" and when he told her, she simply nodded her head and spoke sharply to Hop Sing.
"She say we must turn son so she get to problem," Hop Sing translated and he moved to Joe's side. He reached for Joe's shoulders and found Ben there as well.

"This goes against every fiber of my being to move him, Hop Sing.  This woman had better be right, because if she isn't, she could just as easily cripple him. Tell her, Hop Sing, tell her I will hold her personally responsible." With reluctance, Hop Sing translated Ben's words as they gently rolled Joe face down.

The old woman shook her head and laughed soundlessly. "Tell him that I will hold him responsible if he does not let me help this little one."

Hop Sing chose his translated words wisely when he told Ben that Tai Weh " help son okay," but that Ben needed to let her work in quiet so she could concentrate.

She ran her hands lightly down the bare shoulders and back. What her eyes could not see, her fingers did. The skin was warm to the touch and smooth. The muscles were well defined and as her hands neared the natural dip at the waistline, she could feel that there was no slack beneath her hands. Yes, a young one. Strong too. Works hard.  She traced the spine from the base of his skull down its length and found what she knew she would.  There, between the shoulders, the line was not as straight as it should have been. She pressed a tiny fraction and heard the moan of pain. She let her fingers trace further down and found where another place elicited a similar response. This time she pressed a little harder and felt again where the spine was not as it should have been.

"This is not as bad as it could be, little one. Painful yes, but when it is truly bad, there is no pain. Do you understand what I say to you, little one?" her whisper asked Joe, but she did not pause long for an answer. " I can help you but it will hurt you. Do you want my help or would you rather wait for the healer who is like you?" As she continued to speak softly to him, she let her hands smooth out over his flesh. He was too tense for her to do much to help him and she had to relax him completely.
"Get me the basket I brought. There are things I need. Tell this man who would threaten me that we need hot water and towels. And tell him that he can stop watching me like the hawk does its prey. I only seek to help this one, not to hurt."
Hop Sing translated carefully again and as Joe listened,  he almost laughed at the cautious words Hop Sing used.

From her retrieved basket, Tai Weh poured what looked like a golden oil into the palm of her hand. Slowly and gently she began to knead and massage the shoulders and neck she felt beneath her hands. Ben stayed and watched in fascination as the lines etched by pain in his son's face seemed to melt away and at last his breathing evened out and became deeper. When Tai Weh sensed this had happened, she moved her long fingers to the small of Joe's back, first brushing lightly then slowly pressing deeper and deeper into the bruised flesh beneath her sightless hands. Joe stirred at first but did not awaken from his exhausted slumber. Finally, it reached the point where it did bring him around and she stopped pressing immediately. He fell back asleep almost as quickly as he had awakened.

She continued.

When Doctor Paul Martin opened up the front door there at the Ponderosa, he wasn't in the least bit surprised by what he saw.  After all, he could hear Hoss' snores from out in the yard, so finding him asleep on the sofa was not news. And seeing Adam, propped leg on the square table before the cold fireplace, seated in his favorite blue chair, asleep with a book in his hand, wasn't a shock either. What did surprise him was what he found in Joe's room.

"Tai Weh, it's been a while. How are you?" he bowed slightly and spoke to the wizened old Oriental woman.  They had crossed paths numerous times although never here.  But then he knew that it had only been a matter of time. Her reputation was growing in the more prominent white community. He glanced across the room and saw a sleeping Ben Cartwright seated in the rocker pulled to his son's bedside. He wondered how Ben had taken this appearance but then Ben Cartwright was known as a fair-minded man. More than that, he was known as a man who loved his sons intensely and would do what ever it took to care for them. Tai Weh would have to face a small hurtle and she had done so, Paul figured, or she wouldn't be in that room.

"I am well, honorable colleague. I have been called upon to help this young man but so far, I have not totally succeeded," she answered in completely unaccented English.

As Paul Martin bent to examine Joe, he couldn't help but smile a little at Tai Weh's words. He asked her what she had made as a diagnosis and nodded in agreement. No permanent damage was apparent. Just a very badly wrenched back. He would have prescribed the very thing she had done: heat, rest and manipulation of the sore muscles. He would have done it by exercising the muscles while she had massaged them. One way or the other, he thought, it got the job done.

"But here," she said softly, and without hesitation, touched the point centered on his back, between Joe's shoulder. "Here there is a great deal of tenderness and some swelling. Also, he has no feeling and motion in his hands. I did not want to work that spot without you to help."

Paul ran a tentative hand over where she had indicated and felt a growing lump there. Yes, pressure there from swelling would cause the arms and hands to go numb. "And what do you purpose, Tai Weh?"

"You have a way to keep both the little one and his father quiet that I do not, Doctor. I need both. The spine must be aligned to relieve the pressure growing there and that can cause great pain. If the patient is not restrained, it cannot work. And this one," and she nodded in the general direction of the still sleeping Ben, " would fear I am hurting his child un-necessarily. He has already threatened me."

The doctor chuckled and that awoke Ben. "Paul! I am so glad you're here," he exclaimed, jumping up from the rocker.
"Well, I see that my colleague has things pretty much in hand, Ben." He gestured for them both to leave the room together. Ben interpreted that as he didn't want to speak in front of the woman and, as much as Ben loathed the idea of leaving Joe alone with the strange woman, he followed the doctor into the hallway.

"I need a cup of coffee, Ben." The doctor said when the door closed behind them. He saw the worried glance and the jerk of the head back towards the door that Ben gave. "She won't hurt him one bit. Well, I take that back. She wouldn't hurt him any worse than I would. Come on, I need to talk to you Ben and I don't want to do it in the hall." So with one hand around his old friend's uninjured arm, the doctor headed them towards the stairs.

"Tai Weh is a very respected healer in the Chinese community, Ben.  Other folks been going to her upon occasion too, from what I hear.  Some she turns away. Says she can't help them and usually send them my way. Story has it that she was the consort to some high official over there in China. When he got himself killed in some uprising, she stowed away on a boat and came here. Anyway, she came here years ago and to support herself, used some of what she learned in the royal courts as kind of a physician of sorts. She can do all sorts of things with her hands. I've watched her a time or two and I find it amazing what she can do."

"So much for Tai Weh. What about Joseph?" Ben dismissed the thought of the woman as helping his son any more since Paul was there and as he handed the doctor a cup of coffee, wanted his assessment.

"Well, it appears just as I thought it would be Ben. He's pulled and wrenched some major muscles in his lower back. And from the looks of the bruises back there, some of it happened a while ago that he has been fighting on his own. Other places are newer. But the swelling higher up is a greater concern right now. That we have to address in quick order. Or maybe you didn't notice that Joe's hands haven't moved. That swelling is putting pressure on the nerves to his hands and arms and the longer that pressure stays the more damage it is going to cause."

"What do we need to do, Paul?" Adam asked, coming into the conversation for the first time since Paul and Ben had sat down in the main room, waking the two sleeping brothers. "Surgery to relieve the pressure?"

"That is our last option. No, I think our first item is just what Tai Weh was doing earlier but on a bit more drastic scale. If that doesn't work…" and the doctor became aware of the uncomfortable silence filling the room.

"I will not have some charlatan…" Ben started, his anger rising.

"The type of medicine she practices has been around for centuries, Ben. Yes, it is different from Western medicine but it has its uses and right now I, for one, will employ one of those uses.  Ben, if I have to, I will operate on Joe's back. But if I told you I didn't feel right about doing it and wanted to call in another doctor, you wouldn't have it any other way. So fine, Ben, I'm calling in another doctor. Her."

And silence reigned again.

Finally Hoss broke the ice. "Just what do you intend to do?"

Whatever that stuff was Doc Martin had given him to drink was beginning to make him float right off the bed. For the first time in what seemed like ages, Joe couldn't feel any pain from his back. Fact was. through the euphoric bliss, he couldn't really feel anything at all. Through the haze, he could sense his father beside him and feel his father's hand upon occasion stroke the side of his face or touch his hand. He knew Tai Weh was there as well as Doc Martin but couldn't for the life of himself figure out what was going on. Not that he really minded.

Then it seemed as though the whole atmosphere of the room changed. He felt his father hand tighten his grip on his own hand then his world exploded in white shards of pain that sent burning slivers down his arms like bolts of lightening in a summer sky. He thought he heard an animal scream off in the distance just before darkness reached for him, trying to claim him. He willingly fell into it.

Ben's heart stopped beating when Joseph screamed in pain then fell unconscious. He was sure that he had made a mistake in allowing this to happen. And now, because of that mistake, he son lay still as death, pale, and unmoving beside him. No one in the room had moved other than the woman who had caused it and she continued as she had done before: slowly stroking the flow of muscles as they lay like raised cords along Joe's shoulders and down his back. He raised his eyes to Paul Martin, accusing but saw that the doctor was smiling.

"Okay, Ben, we need to get the swelling down now. And he'll be coming back around in a bit. We need to make sure he stays absolutely still for a while so those muscles have a chance to heal." the doctor was saying but Ben was only giving him half his attention.  The other half was caught up in the strong grasp of his youngest son's hand. His mind darted back twenty some years before when he had held those same fingers for the first time and marveled at how strong the hand was. He'll make a good horseman. A true Cartwright with a grip like that.

Before the week was out, Joe was pestering to get out of bed, against the orders of Doctor Paul Martin and his father's wishes. He had even tried to use the excuse that the ranch needed him but he knew that wasn't true…at least for the moment.  The Army had taken the cattle and their new riding stock and headed for Fort Tejon in California. The mill was back up and running smoothly and the logging camp had pulled itself back together.

The more Ben heard from his new foremen and crew chiefs what Joseph had managed to do, the more he was surprised by his youngest. Even Adam had been forced to admit that he may not have been able to handle all of the challenges like Joe did. That raised more than one set of eyebrows around the dining table that evening.

"You gonna tell him that?" Hoss asked and gestured with his chin towards the ceiling.

"Maybe I will and maybe I won't.  You know the little cuss beat me at chess this afternoon so I am not too willing to let him think he has me whipped all the way around."

"Well, whether we like it or not, Doc is going to be letting him up soon and he is going to be back to running the ranch again. So you need to make peace with 'the little cuss' or he won't give you your job back, Adam." Hoss joshed.

"I don't think that that is a possibility, son," Ben interjected. "I don't think he wants the job full time any more than either of us wants the whole load."

"I agree with you there, Pa," Adam acquiesced.

Ben looked down the table at his eldest, searching for sarcasm and finding none, smiled. "I think, boys, that once the three of us are back to running the ranch, we need to make a few changes around here."

Adam laid his fork down and ever mindful of his duty as eldest son, spoke first. "Like what did you have in mind?"

"Well I think that Joseph and I need to take a short trip together. You and Hoss can run the ranch while we're gone. You have ample experience, Adam. Plus you will have Hoss to help you," Ben said spacing his words carefully then returned to his plate.

"Where you and Joe be headed, Pa?" Hoss' face scrunched in thought.

"Texas," was Ben's one word reply.

"Why Texas?" Adam asked, his brows drawing together then he answered his own question. "More of those damn horses."

Ends, like beginnings, are……
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