Revenge Of The Stranger
A WHN to “The Stranger”
By: Helen B
Joe Cartwright walked into the Lucky Lady
saloon in the small town of
Joe laughed. “Have a little accident, did you?”
Sam Larson glared at Joe. “Don’t push me, boy!”
“Oh, I’m scared,” Joe said sarcastically as he stood to his feet, reaching out he pushed Larson and asked, “What are you going to do about that?”
“Take it outside,” the bartender shouted, “I don’t want no trouble in here.”
“You heard the man,” Larson said to Joe, “Outside. I’ll finish what you started.”
The two men stood in the street as people ran to get out of the way. Two guns echoed almost simultaneously and one man fell.
Joe stared down at the body of Sam Larson, he looked up when he heard a voice.
“Give me your gun,” Sheriff Robert Mattheson said, “You’re coming with me,” he took Joe’s gun from him and roughly pushed him towards the jail. “Take care of that,” he told his deputy as he nodded at the body of Sam Larson.
A man named Jeff Saunders stepped up to them before Joe and the sheriff reached the jail. “You can’t lock him up for that,” Saunders said, “Larson started to draw first. Everyone saw him.”
“I’m the sheriff here, not you,” Sheriff Mattheson said.
“Then you should know the law,” the man retorted.
“Take it!” Mattheson thrust Joe’s gun back into his hand, “But you watch your step, boy. Because I’m going to be watching you very carefully, one step out of line and you will find yourself in my jail up on murder charges.”
The sheriff walked away and Saunders turned to Joe. “Good job, kid. Come on lets go. I’ll take you to see the boss.”
The people in the street looked nervously away as Joe walked to the stable to get his horse. None of the men wanted to earn the ire of the young man who they’d just seen shoot down someone so coldly and so quickly. The boy had only been in town a few days and already he’d killed one man. No one wanted to be notch number two.
Joe rode alongside Saunders until they reached a small house a few miles out of town. When they stopped and dismounted, Joe felt his heartbeat quicken but he gave no sign of his feelings. Saunders knocked on the door and both men were shown in. Looking up from his desk the man Saunders worked for asked, “It went well?”
Saunders nodded and replied. “He did the job. Sam Larson is dead.”
Joe could not keep the look of shock from his face. Up until this moment it had been Saunders who had passed on the messages from his boss. Now Joe got his first look at the man.
“Leduque,” Joe whispered to himself.
“Hello, Joseph,” Leduque said coldly.
Joe tried to pull himself together. He
hated this man and to know now that he was involved with his father’s disappearance
made Joe’s blood run cold. Less than a year ago, Charles Leduque had arrived in
“Where’s my father?” Joe almost spat the words at Leduque, “What have you done to him?”
“The only thing you need to know is that your father is still alive,” Leduque paused and stared into Joe’s eyes before continuing, “And he will stay that way as long as you do as you are told.”
“I did what you told me to,” Joe said angrily.
“That was just a test to make sure you were capable of following orders,” Leduque replied and Joe just stood there waiting for the man to continue, “You work for me now. You’ll never get the blood off your hands and it’ll be your fathers blood if you don’t continue to do as I say.”
Joe felt his stomach churn and the bile rose in his throat. Joe shook his head. “I can’t….”
Leduque held up his hand, silencing Joe and said, “You can and you will. We’ve made a deal. If you fail to do as I have instructed you to, you will be responsible for the consequences.”
“We had a deal!” Joe shouted, “I want….”
Leduque raised his hand and pointing at Joe he said angrily, “Don’t raise your voice to me, boy! You will do as I say unless you want me to give you the next piece.”
Joe’s face drained of all color and he swallowed hard and then asked, “Why are you doing this? What happened to you was not my father’s fault. It was your gun and your bullet. You fell. It was just an accident,” Joe tried to reason with Leduque.
Joe thought back to what his father had
told him about the journey Ben had set out on with Leduque. Ben had agreed to
accompany the former inspector back to
When Joe’s words had no effect he became angrier. “My father saved your life. He carried you on his back for miles. He could have left you to die out there in the desert!” Joe shouted the words at Leduque.
“He should have,” Leduque replied simply.
“After my father saved you, you told him that you no longer hated him,” Joe paused and stared at Leduque and then he asked, “What’s changed?”
Anger blazed in Leduque’s eyes. “Nothing’s changed,” he said coldly, “In a moment of weakness, I almost let myself forgive him but after we went our separate ways it didn’t take me long to realize that my feelings hadn’t changed. I feel the same way now about Ben Cartwright that I’ve felt for the last twenty years. I hate him. He destroyed my life,” Leduque paused and the look on his face sent a chill down Joe’s back, then he said, “And now I intend to destroy him.”
“I want to see my father,” Joe almost pleaded. He could see he was getting nowhere by trying to reason with Leduque and his worry for his father was increasing.
“Soon,” Leduque replied, “but whether you see him dead or alive will be up to you.”
Joe took a step forward, his fists clenched. The click of a gun being cocked sounded. “I wouldn’t if I was you,” Saunders said.
Leduque just sat there. Finally, he said, “Go,” as he nodded towards the door, “Saunders will pass on my next job for you.”
When Joe continued to stand there and glare back at him, Leduque said, “You will learn to do as I say or you will be receiving that next piece very soon.”
Joe felt sick to his stomach and quickly turned away, not wanting Leduque to see the effect his words were having.
Saunders followed Joe outside, they had only just stepped out the door of the house when Joe learnt over and was violently sick. Wiping his sleeve across his mouth, he straightened up and saw Saunders watching him. The man shook his head with a look of disgust on his face and said, “If you’re going to be Mr Leduque’s hired killer you had better get a stronger stomach than that boy,” he laughed as he continued, “but then again I don’t know why Mr Leduque expects a boy to do a man’s job.”
Joe took a deep breath, fighting to control his temper and turned away. He didn’t care what Saunders thought of him, what anyone thought of him. The only thing Joe was concerned about was getting his father back. Going to his horse, Joe mounted up. “Don’t try anything,” Saunders called out as Joe started to ride away, “Don’t do anything stupid. You’re being watched!”
Adam and Hoss were on their way home after
a trip to
Adam and Hoss looked at each other, both had an uneasy feeling. “What’s going on?” Hoss asked the bartender.
“Nothin’ personal against you,” the bartender replied, “Everyone’s just a bit wary of strangers at the moment.” The man nodded towards the door, “Man name of Sam Larson was gunned down outside earlier today. Kid that did it is stayin’ here. Real fast with a gun he is. Sam didn’t stand a chance. Kid just outright murdered him is my way of thinking.” Having taken a sip of his beer, Adam almost choked when the bartender spoke his next words, “Goes by the name of Cartwright. Joe Cartwright.”
“What!” Adam asked sharply, “Is Joe all right?”
The man nodded. “Didn’t get a scratch,” he was starting to get a bit nervous, “Do you know him?”
The Cartwright brothers ignored the question and Adam asked, “What happened? I want to know exactly what happened.”
The man looked around and Adam and Hoss noticed that everyone had once again stopped talking and were looking at them. The bartender licked his lips nervously and began, “This Cartwright kid booked a room here a few days ago. This morning he started in on Sam. Sam was just in here havin’ a drink. He was a real nice fella,” the bartender stopped, afraid, he didn’t want to make the two men he was talking to angry.
“And?” Hoss prompted the man to continue.
The bartender looked around the room as if seeking help. One man called out, “I was a friend of Sam’s. Cartwright pushed and pushed, talking down to him until Sam couldn’t do anything but call him out. That kid was fast. Fastest I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t a fair fight. That kid’s just an outright murderer.” At the look on the faces of Adam and Hoss, the man looked away, belatedly realizing he might have said too much.
“Come on,” Adam said to Hoss and both men headed for the door.
“What are we going to do?” Hoss asked when they were outside, “What’s going on? Joe wouldn’t do something like they just said. And where’s Pa?”
Adam shook his head, wishing he knew the answers. “Lets go talk to the sheriff,” he said.
“So you have no idea where your brother is now?” the sheriff asked, after Adam and Hoss had told him who they were and what they’d heard in the saloon.
“No,” Adam shook his head.
“What happened? I can’t believe Joe would kill someone the way they’re sayin’ he did,” Hoss said.
The Sheriff frowned and was about to start talking when Adam looked out the window and saw his young brother riding down the street towards the Lucky Lady saloon. Adam headed for the door, calling over to Hoss, “It’s Joe.”
Joe had just dismounted and tied his horse to the hitching rail when he heard his name being called and recognised the voice of his oldest brother, he turned quickly.
“What’s going on? Where’s Pa?” Adam asked as soon as he reached Joe.
Joe’s knees nearly buckled beneath him, the relief of having his brothers with him now was over whelming. He wanted to tell them everything but he knew he couldn’t, not yet. Joe looked around quickly. There were people all around and he was worried any one of them could be working for Leduque. He knew he would have to be careful what he said. All the way back to town Joe had felt an uneasy feeling of being watched.
“Where’s Pa?” Adam asked again.
“Joe,” Hoss said quietly, “What’s wrong? Are you all right?”
“Pa’s not here. I…” Joe started to reply.
Adam cut him off. “What happened today, Joe?” Adam was becoming frustrated about not getting any answers. “Is it true what they are saying about you?”
When Joe didn’t answer, Adam grabbed his arm and said angrily, “I asked you a question.” Joe pulled his arm free.
Hoss knowing something was seriously wrong by the way Joe was acting, said, “Not here, Adam. Let’s go somewhere where we can talk in private.”
Joe was torn with indecision. He wanted to talk to his brothers, to tell them everything that had happened but he didn’t want someone to see them and think he was trying to pass on a message. He looked around him and then quickly led the way into the Lucky Lady saloon. Adam and Hoss followed Joe upstairs to his room.
“What’s going on, Joe?” Adam asked, as soon as Joe had shut the door, fear and worry making his voice sound sharp.
“What’s wrong, Little Joe?” Hoss asked gently as he walked to his brother and then pushed the young man into a chair and squatted down beside him. “Are you all right?” he asked.
Joe nodded. “But Pa…..” he broke off.
Pulling a chair over, Adam sat next to Joe and put his hand on the young man’s back. “Where’s Pa, Joe?” he asked, trying to keep his voice steady.
Joe took a deep breath and told his brothers what had happened.
“We were waiting to make that deal for the horses, Pa was real happy with it. Pa went to finalize it and I came here to get us a room. Pa never showed up. I looked all over town but couldn’t find him. I was just going to go and see the sheriff but a man stopped me and gave me this.” Joe got up and walked to the bedside table. Opening a draw he took something out. Adam noticed the smell and his heartbeat quickened as Joe handed the item to him and trying to prepare both his brothers he quietly said, “It’s bad.” Joe turned away, not wanting to see it again.
Adam and Hoss looked at the material that Adam held, knowing it was their father’s bandana, now covered in dry blood. Adam slowly unwrapped it and gasped at what he saw, “A finger,” he said, shocked. Adam quickly balled the material back up, fighting down the bile that rose in his throat he put it back in the draw not wanting to hold it any longer.
Hoss’ face was screwed up with pain. “We don’t know that it’s Pa’s,” he said.
“Who else’s would it be?” Joe fought hard not to shout the words, knowing his brothers were shocked by what he had just shown them. “The man who gave it to me, his name is Jeff Saunders. He said he was working for someone but he wouldn’t tell me who. He said that if I didn’t do what he told me to that they’d kill Pa and give him back to me a piece at a time,” Joe’s voice broke and he started to cry. Adam and Hoss now understood with horror the situation Joe had been trying to deal with alone. Joe started to pace the floor.
Hoss went over and put his arm around his young brother, trying to give Joe what comfort he could. “So you don’t know who is behind this?” he asked.
Hoss felt Joe tense and he gently squeezed the boy’s arm. Joe took a deep breath and said, “Saunders just took me to him today,” he looked up at Hoss and then over at Adam before he continued, “It’s Leduque.”
“What!” Adam said, shocked, “Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure,” Joe snapped, pulling away from Hoss, Joe continued to pace.
Adam gently grabbed Joe’s arm and led him back to the chair. Pushing Joe into it, Adam squatted down beside him and said softly, “I’m sorry, Joe. We’re all just on edge.” Joe leant forward with his arms clutched around his stomach. Adam ran his had down his young brothers back. “You most of all hmmmm,” he said comfortingly.
“I can’t stand it anymore, Adam,” Joe’s voice broke on the words.
Continuing to rub his brothers back, Adam asked, “What did Leduque want you to do?” When his brother didn’t answer, Adam asked again, “What did he want you to do, Joe?”
Joe looked into his oldest brother’s eyes and replied, “He told me to kill someone.”
Adam sucked in a breath and grabbed his brother’s arms. “Tell me you didn’t,” he said anxiously, without waiting for an answer he continued, “Was it Sam Larson you were told to kill?”
Joe slowly nodded his head.
“Oh, Joe,” Adam said softly, his eyes showing his shock.
Silence fell on the room for a moment. Adam and Hoss were too shocked to say anything. Joe tried to explain. “You don’t understand. It’s not what you think. Saunders passed on the message to me. He told me to force Larson into a gunfight with me. I….”
“Stop it, Joe,” Adam said sharply, “What is there to understand! There’s no excuse for what you’ve done.”
Joe was almost at breaking point, he fought against the fear that his father was dead; he didn’t want to believe that. And looking at his brothers he could see the shock on their faces at what they were hearing now. He wanted to talk to them about it; to explain, but as he was about to start talking again, Adam shook his head and said, “There’s no point in talking about it. It’s done,” Adam almost choked on the words, “What we have to concentrate on now is getting Pa back.”
“Why won’t you listen to me!” Joe shouted, his nerves stretched tight, “I was here by myself. I had to do what I thought was best. You’ll understand if you let me explain. I made the decision to deal with it the way I did. If Pa dies it will be my fault.”
Joe turned away but not before Hoss saw the tears in his young brother’s eyes. Hoss walked over and gently turned Joe to face him, he pulled him into his arms and held him tightly. “It’ll be all right, Little Joe. I promise. Don’t worry, it will be all right.” And Hoss prayed that it would be.
“Please, listen to me….” Joe implored his brothers but he was interrupted by the noise of shouting coming from the hallway outside the room.
“Fire! Fire! Everyone out!”
There were shouts from downstairs as people started to run outside. “Come on,” Adam said to his brothers, “We better find out what’s going on.”
Downstairs everyone was walking around with looks of confusion on their faces.
“Where’s the fire?” Hoss asked. People shrugged and shook their heads in reply. No one knew what was going on. There appeared to be no fire.
Standing behind his older brothers, Joe didn’t see the man who slipped up behind him but he recognised the voice, “Come with me,” Saunders said, and Joe felt a gun pressed to his back, his own gun was pulled from his holster and taken from him and then he was forced through an alley and pushed onto a horse.
“Looks like a false alarm,” Hoss said, “I wonder what…..” his voice trailed off when he looked behind him and saw that Joe wasn’t there. “Where’s Joe!” he shouted at Adam.
Adam looked around, starting to panic. “I don’t know, he was right here with us a minute ago.”
Both brothers looked urgently for any sign of Joe. Something caught Hoss’ attention out of the corner of his eye and he turned to look. Hoss recognised his young brother, leaving town with another man. Grabbing Adam’s arm, he pointed, “There!”
“Let’s go,” Adam replied and both men ran for their horses. As they mounted, Adam said, “We’ll have to be careful to stay out of sight.” Hoss nodded and they rode out.
“You were seen talking to two men in town and by the descriptions they sound like your brothers,” Leduque stared hard at Joe, “I’m right, aren’t I?”
Joe nodded, he knew there was no point in trying to deny it, “I didn’t know they were coming here.”
“Have you told them anything?” Leduque didn’t take his eyes off Joe.
Joe shook his head. “No,” he said, hoping Leduque would believe him, “I didn’t have time to talk to them,” Joe couldn’t stand the pressure any longer and snapped, “I did what you wanted. Now I want you to keep your bargain and let my father go.”
Leduque shook his head. “I can’t do that. We’re not finished. You haven’t done your second job yet.”
“No!” Joe shouted angrily, “No more! How do I know that my father is even alive? I want to see him.”
Leduque nodded. “I can allow that. And then you will do the next job I give you?”
“I want to see my father,” Joe replied simply.
“Take him to his father,” Leduque told Saunders. “Blindfold him and make sure he has no idea of where you are taking him. Then bring him back here.”
Saunders nodded. “Come on,” he said to Joe.
Joe was blindfolded and taken out to a horse, he mounted and Saunders took the reins. “Don’t try and take the blindfold off,” he said.
Joe tried to keep track in his mind of the direction they were going but they twisted and turned so often that by the time they reached their destination and Saunders told him to dismount, Joe knew he’d never be able to find his way back.
A door was opened and Joe was pushed inside and the blindfold taken off. He blinked at the light and when his eyes adjusted to it he saw his father sitting tied to a chair and gagged. Ben’s hands were tied behind his back and Joe couldn’t see them but the sight of his father sent relief flooding through him. “Pa,” Joe said, as he moved towards his father.
The man who was guarding Ben pointed his gun at Joe and said, “Don’t.”
“I just want to make sure he’s all right,” Joe replied.
“No,” Saunders said, “I was told to let you see your father. You’ve seen him. Now it’s time to go.”
Joe looked back at his father, trying to communicate silently with him, until he was blindfolded again and then pushed towards the door. When Joe heard the door open, he knew he had to make his move, he ripped the blindfold off and then spun around, hitting Saunders and knocking the man over. The man who had been guarding Ben, pointed his gun at Ben and told Joe, “Remember you caused this.”
“No!” Joe screamed.
Ben’s eyes jerked to the door at the sound of someone coming and suddenly Adam and Hoss burst inside, guns firing.
Saunders dived through a window just as the two oldest Cartwright brothers started shooting. The man who had been guarding Ben was wounded in the gunfire.
Adam and Hoss had followed Joe and had been outside, debating their next move when they’d heard the shot. They’d come running but everything had happened so quickly. Too quickly. Both brothers sighed with relief at the sight of their father but swiftly that relief turned to shock and dismay when they saw their young brother lying at their father’s feet in a pool of blood.
“Oh, no,” Adam whispered and then sprang forward to help Joe while Hoss quickly released their father. As soon as he was free, Ben dropped to his knees beside his sons as Adam and Hoss tried to stem the blood flowing from Joe’s back.
The Cartwrights waited impatiently as the doctor worked on Joe. With all that had happened, Adam realised he’d forgotten about his father’s hands. Ben looked across at Adam and saw the young man staring intently at him.
“Adam,” Ben asked, “What’s wrong, son?”
“Your hands,” Adam replied.
“What about them?” Ben asked.
Hoss jerked in remembrance and also looked at his fathers hands. Sighing with relief when he saw them.
“They gave Joe a finger,” Hoss said, still feeling sick at the thought, “And told him it was yours.”
“My God!” Ben’s eyes swung to the door behind which lay his youngest child. Ben’s own stomach churned at the thought of what the boy had been through.
Ben looked at his two oldest sons who were waiting in the room with him and then said, “Tell me what happened? How did you find me? I want to know everything.”
Adam and Hoss filled Ben in. Ben’s heart almost stopped when he was told about Joe killing Sam Larson. “No,” Ben said, shocked at what he had just been told, he shook his head disbelievingly, “Little Joe wouldn’t do that. It’s not possible. There must be some mistake.”
“There’s no mistake, Pa,” Adam replied, “Joe killed that man.”
Ben put his head in his hands. He knew Joe had done it for him. ‘But at what cost?’ Ben asked himself.
The door opened and Sheriff Mattheson walked out. The Cartwrights had brought the wounded man in with them. The doctor was going to work on him after Joe had been looked after. The Cartwrights jumped to their feet but Mattheson shook his head and told Ben, “The Doc’s still operating on your son.” Ben blew out the breath he’d been holding since the door opened and turned away. “That other man you brought in just died,” Mattheson continued.
Ben turned back to face Sheriff Mattheson, “My boys shot in self defence.”
“I know,” Mattheson nodded, “They’ll be no charges.”
“Did he tell you anything?” Adam asked.
Mattheson nodded, “A bit. He didn’t know much about Leduque. According to him Saunders did most of the dirty work. Leduque seems like he is quite mad but not everything he did was planned in advance. It looks like some things just fell into place for him. He had a few others working for him, they didn’t know a lot about what he was doing. They were hired only to keep an eye on Joe. Just as Leduque was setting his plan into action, one of those men was killed in a riding accident. A horse trampled him out where Leduque’s staying. Leduque had him buried out there,” he paused and looked at Ben before you continued, “It was then that Leduque decided to cut that man’s finger off and have it given to Joe and tell him it was yours.”
Ben felt his stomach turn and he clenched his hands into fists. “Is there no end to that man’s insanity?” he said with barely controlled anger.
“I know the place where Leduque’s staying. I’ll go out there now,” the sheriff said.
“Do you want Hoss and I to go with you?” Adam asked.
Sheriff Mattheson shook his head. “No, he said, glancing at Ben, “You’d better stay here with your father. I’ll get a couple of other men to go out there with me.”
Before anymore could be said, he quickly left, hoping to catch Leduque and Saunders still there.
Ben was on the verge of collapsing, “Sit down, Pa,” Adam encouraged.
“How much longer?” Ben muttered, not hearing Adam, his thoughts only of Joe.
Adam made his father sit down and then put
a hand on his back. “He’ll be all right,
Ben nodded and took a deep breath. “But what happens then, Adam?” he asked.
“What do you mean, Pa?” Adam replied.
“What happens to Joe? Will he be in trouble for killing that man?”
“No,” Adam said quickly, “Regardless of the fact that Joe initiated the gunfight, from what we’ve heard, it was a fair fight. Joe’s not going to get in trouble over this,” Adam said firmly, “We won’t let that happen.”
Everyone turned towards the door when they heard it open and Ben jumped to his feet, asking anxiously, “How is he?”
“I’m sorry, Mr Cartwright….” the doctor said.
Before the doctor could continue, Ben slumped back into his chair, his face white with shock. Adam and Hoss squatted down beside their father.
Adam looked up at the doctor. “He’s dead?” he asked quietly, fearing the answer.
“Your brother suffered a severe wound to his back, the blood loss was extreme,” the doctor paused for a moment, not wanting to give false hope, he tried to choose his next words carefully, “I’ve done what I can for him but I don’t think he will live through the night.”
Ben looked up quickly. “He’s still alive?”
The doctor nodded and Ben was on his feet in an instant, pushing past the doctor in his eagerness to reach his son.
The doctor grabbed Adam’s arm as he and Hoss started to follow their father. “Don’t let your father get his hopes up.”
Adam nodded briefly and without speaking he followed his father and brother into the back room.
Ben sat on a chair beside the bed and reached out his hand to brush the hair away from Joe’s forehead, feeling the heat from the fever that was raging in Joe.
Adam and Hoss stood beside their father. Looking at Joe, it was obvious to them just how ill he was. Joe was pale, the only color coming from the flush of the fever. He wasn’t moving at all, his shallow breaths barely making his chest move.
The doctor slowly approached them. “I am sorry. I wish there was more I could do for him.”
Adam turned his eyes from his young brother to the doctor and asked, “You got the bullet out?”
“Yes,” the doctor replied, “but it was a long and difficult operation. Considering the seriousness of the wound, the blood loss, shock, pain, it’s a miracle he’s still alive. But now he just has nothing left to fight with.”
Adam shook his head. “You don’t know my brother. He’ll keep fighting.”
“What can we do for him?” Ben asked.
“We could try packing him in ice,” the doctor said, “It’s a drastic thing to do and it could send his body further into shock but if he’s to have any chance at all we have to get that fever down.”
“Let’s do it then,” Hoss said, ‘Tell us where to get the ice, Doc, and we’ll fetch it.”
Adam and Hoss got the ice and returned as quickly as possible. It wasn’t long until Joe was completely surrounded by it.
Joe moaned and slowly opened his eyes, staring up at his father.
“Joseph,” Ben cried, overjoyed to see Joe awake, “It’s going to be all right, son.” Ben sought to reassure him. “You just hang on. It’s going to be all right.”
Joe moaned again and shuddered, he didn’t say anything but Ben could see how cold he was and there was no mistaking the pleading in Joe’s eyes for his father to help him.
“I’m sorry, Joe,” Ben said softly, stroking the wet hair away from Joe’s face, “so sorry. I know you feel awful but you’re running a temperature and we have to get it down.” Ben hoped that Joe understood why they were doing this to him, he was relieved when Joe nodded slightly. Ben reached through the ice and took Joe’s hand in his, squeezing it.
Adam and Hoss had just brought some more ice in and the doctor had spread it around Joe, who had slipped once again into unconsciousness. Adam stood at the doorway and watched, worry and fear almost consuming him. Worry for the boy he loved so much who was struggling to stay alive. And worry for his father, for if the boy died, Adam knew his father would blame himself. Ben sat beside the bed, clutching his son’s hand, with his head bowed. Adam knew his father was praying.
Hoss went to stand beside his father, putting a hand on the man’s shoulder and bowing his head. Adam took the few steps to stand on the other side of Ben and did the same thing.
During the night Sheriff Mattheson came to tell the family that when he’d gotten to the house it had been empty. There had been no sign of Leduque or Saunders. Seeing that the Cartwrights only concern at that moment was Joe, he’d left them alone. Telling them he would talk to them later.
Finally the fever broke and Joe moved restlessly, uncomfortable in the wet bed. The family quickly changed the bedding and made Joe as comfortable as they could. Ben once again took his son’s hand.
Joe stirred, groaning as he moved and Ben bent closer. Joe’s eyes blinked, it was a struggle for him to open them, when he did he looked up into the loving face of his father.
Ben gently brushed the hair away from Joe’s forehead and asked, “How do you feel?”
“Pa,” Joe said, croakily, “You all right?” he could hardly keep his eyes open but his only concern was for his father.
Ben lifted Joe’s head and supported him while Hoss held a glass to his brother’s lips. When Ben laid his son back down, he brushed his cheek and murmured, “Go back to sleep, Joseph. Everything’s fine. It’s going to be all right now. You just go back to sleep.”
A few hours later, Joe was awake again and the doctor smiled as he finished examining him.
“Well,” Doctor Benson said, “You certainly proved me wrong,” he looked at Joe’s family and continued, “and this is one time I’m glad I was wrong.”
“Thank you for all you’ve done, Doctor,” Ben said.
“Call me Steve,” Doctor Benson replied, “And I’m glad I was here to help.” In the short time he’d known the family, the doctor had come to like them all very much.
The doctor looked back at Joe and saw that the young man’s eyes were locked on his father. “I’ll leave you alone. I’m sure there’s a lot you all need to talk about,” Doctor Benson said.
“Is Joe up to that?” Ben asked, as he looked from his son to the doctor.
“Don’t worry, Ben. He’ll go to sleep when he’s tired. Don’t be concerned if he falls asleep in the middle of talking to you though.”
The doctor left the room and Ben went and sat on the bed beside Joe. Adam and Hoss took chairs near by.
“Your hands?” Joe asked, trying to look at both of his father’s hands.
“My hands are fine, son,” Ben replied and held them both up for Joe to see.
Joe breathed an audible sigh of relief and said, “I was so afraid they’d….” Joe trailed off, tears welling in his eyes.
Ben took Joe’s hand in his and said softly, “I know what they told you, Joe. I’m so sorry you had to go through that.”
Joe shook his head dismissively. He wasn’t worried about himself. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” Ben replied reassuringly.
“Pa, it was Leduque…” It was a struggle for Joe to get the words out but he needed his father to know.
“Shhhh, son,” Ben leant forward so he could look into Joe’s eyes, “I know and it’s all right. Don’t worry.”
“Please forgive me,” tears pooled in Joe’s eyes and he clutched his father’s hand with all the strength he had as he begged, “Please.”
Ben felt tears come to his own eyes at his son’s obvious distress. Stroking Joe’s arm, Ben said, “It’s all right, Joseph. I understand why you did it. I’m so sorry you had to go through this. It’s my fault for bringing Leduque into our lives.”
“No, Pa,” Joe shook his head, “It’s not
your fault. You couldn’t know what Leduque would do,” Joe shivered, “He’s evil,
Ben pulled the blankets tighter around his son, not sure if Joe’s shivering was caused because he was cold or from memories of what Leduque had put him through.
“What happened to him, Pa?” Joe asked.
“He got away, Joe,” When Joe struggled to sit up, Ben gently held him down, “Stay still, Joseph. You’ll hurt yourself. He won’t get away with this, I promise.”
“He wanted me to kill someone, Pa,” Joe needed his father to understand, “He said if I didn’t, you’d be killed.”
“I know,” Ben said, trying to comfort Joe, “Don’t think about that now.”
“But I couldn’t,
Joe’s family looked at each other, confused.
While Ben tried to settle Joe down, Adam leant over the bed, “Joe, buddy,” he said softly, “What are you saying? What do you mean that you couldn’t do it?”
Joe shook his head, “I couldn’t,” he looked into his father’s eyes, “I love you so much, Pa, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t kill him. Please forgive me.”
The doctor had come back into the room and quickly moved to the bed, “I’ll give him something to settle him down and help him sleep, he’ll tear his stiches open if he keeps this up.”
Ben and Adam continued to hold Joe still until the doctor gave him an injection and he closed his eyes in sleep.
“What happened?” Doctor Benson asked.
“We were just talking and he became upset,” Hoss said.
The doctor nodded. “It’s understandable. He’s been through a lot. It’s going to take him a long time to recover from this both physically and emotionally.” Doctor Benson had heard parts of what had happened while he had been helping the family to look after Joe.
Adam rubbed his forehead in thought and asked, “What do you think Joe meant when he said he couldn’t kill him? Couldn’t kill who?”
Ben’s eyes stayed on Joe as he answered, “I don’t know. Maybe Leduque asked him to kill someone else?”
“Hasn’t Joe told you about Sam Larson yet?” the Cartwrights turned to the door when they heard Sheriff Mattheson’s voice, they hadn’t heard the doctor’s wife show him in.
“Yes, we know about him,” Adam said, “We know about the gunfight and that Joe killed him,” at the Sheriff’s curious look, Adam asked, “Is there more to it?”
“Yes,” the sheriff replied emphatically, “Sam Larson isn’t dead.”
“What!” Ben jumped to his feet, “What are you talking about?”
“Sit down,” Sheriff Mattheson nodded to a chair, “I think I have a lot to tell you about,” when Ben sat down the sheriff continued, “I haven’t had a chance to talk to you about this before. Joe came to see me one night. He was so nervous, he was anxious that he not be seen talking to me. He told me his father had been kidnapped and showed me the finger that he’d been given. He said he’d been told to kill a man, Sam Larson. The story seemed so far fetched but I believed Joe. We came up with a plan,” the Cartwrights waited for the rest of the story, almost holding their breaths, “I went to see Sam Larson and told him what Joe had told me. It seems he’d recently had a run in with a man in town. He didn’t know the man’s name at the time but now I know that it must have been Leduque. It didn’t amount to much in Sam’s mind but it was obviously enough for Leduque to single him out. Sam agreed to go along with us. Joe had blanks in his gun. He pretended to shoot Sam. The only other person who knew about the plan was my deputy and I had him take Sam away after the shooting.”
“He’s alive?” Ben asked, shocked.
“Yes,” the sheriff nodded, “He’s at my house. Sam’s not married, he has no family in town so we didn’t have to worry about them being upset at his supposed death. Not even the undertaker knew, I had my deputy put some rocks in a casket and nail it shut.”
“But what about Larson’s friends?” Adam asked, ‘What if one of them had decided to take things into their own hands and shoot Joe.” A look of fear shot across Ben’s face, he hadn’t thought of that.
Sheriff Mattheson nodded, “Joe knew that was a possibility. When we talked about it, he said he didn’t care what happened to him,” the sheriff looked at Ben, “His only concern was for you. You were all he was thinking about. He was worried something would go wrong and they’d kill you.”
Ben walked back to the bed and carefully sat down beside Joe. “Oh, Joseph. Is that why you think you needed my forgiveness? Because you couldn’t kill someone?” Ben stroked the hair away from his young son’s face, “I am so proud of you. So very proud. You did nothing that you need to be forgiven for,” he said softly.
It was a few hours later that Joe started to stir. Slowly he blinked his eyes open and looked up into the face of his father. Ben had remained sitting beside Joe, unwilling to move away. He wanted to be there when the boy awoke so he could straighten things out with him.
Ben reached out and stroked the side of Joe’s face. “How are you feeling?”
“Thirsty,” Joe replied softly.
Ben reached over to the bedside table and got a glass of water, “Here,” he said as he lifted Joe’s head and helped him to drink. Adam and Hoss came into the room and seeing Joe was awake they happily greeted him and sat down beside the bed.
“We need to talk,” Ben said, carefully, watching for Joe’s reaction. The worried father squeezed his son’s hand, “You have to stay calm all right,” Joe nodded and Ben smiled, “It will be all right, son. I promise.”
Keeping hold of Joe’s hand, Ben said, “Sheriff Mattheson was here earlier. He told us about the plan you both came up with, how you pretended to shoot Sam Larson.”
“Pa,” Joe looked into his father’s eyes, “I’m so sorry. I….”
“Sorry for what, Joe? You have nothing to apologise to me for,” Ben said sincerely. Joe started to shake his head in denial. Ben put his hand to Joe’s face to still the movement. “You did nothing wrong. Nothing. Please understand that, Joe. I am so proud of you.”
“I couldn’t kill him,” Joe squeezed his
father’s hand tighter, “I love you so much,
“I know, son. I know,” Ben comforted, “It was a horrible position Leduque placed you in. But you did the right thing. You did the only thing you could. You would never have been able to live with yourself had you done as Leduque wanted.”
“I would never have been able to live with myself if you had died,” Joe struggled to get the words out as tears slipped from his eyes.
Ben gently gathered Joe into his arms. “It’s over now, Little Joe,” Ben said softly as he held his son in his arms.
Joe shook his head. “Leduque’s still out there somewhere,” he whispered.
Ben heard the quietly spoken words and knew that Joe was afraid. He hugged the boy tighter and said, “Don’t worry about Leduque, Joseph. We’re with you now and we’ll keep you safe. That’s a promise.”
Two days later, Joe was feeling a lot better. Sitting up in bed he was talking with his family.
“I’m sorry about the things I said to you, Joe, that first day we got here,” Adam said regretfully, “I jumped to the wrong conclusions. I realise now that you tried to tell me but I wouldn’t listen.”
“That’s all right,” Joe replied, “So much was happening. We all had a lot on our minds. It doesn’t matter now.”
“Yes it does,” Adam said, learning forward from the chair he was sitting in. “I should have trusted you. I should have had more faith in you.”
Joe took a deep breath and slowly exhaled before replying. “No,” he shook his head, “I don’t think I deserve that faith,” Joe looked at his father who sat beside him on the bed, “It was so hard to go through with the plan, knowing what I was risking.”
“That took true courage, Joseph. Sometimes we have to make hard choices and pray that things work out the way we want them, too,” Ben said.
“But you might have died,” Joe looked away before his father saw the tears that threatened to fall.
Ben carefully turned Joe’s face back towards him. “But I didn’t,” he said firmly. “And the decision you made, as hard as it was, was the right one. You didn’t do anything wrong,” Ben said and smiled, “You know you didn’t.”
With the strength of his father’s love and understanding, Joe felt the guilt he’d been carrying start to wash away.
Two weeks later, Ben helped Joe to get dressed. The doctor had finally said Joe was well enough to travel. Ben had hired a buckboard and as well as supplies for the trip, he bought a mattress, blankets, pillows and anything else he thought they’d need to make the journey home comfortable for his son.
With an arm around Joe’s waist, Ben helped him walk to the buckboard. Joe started to walk towards the front of it, intending to pull himself up onto the seat. “No, you don’t,” Ben laughed and gently pulled Joe towards the back of it, “You’re going to lie down, doctor’s orders.”
“Doc Benson said I could sit up if I felt like it,” Joe complained.
“Well Doctor Cartwright’s over ruling him and you,” Ben said, struggling not to smile at the look on his young son’s face as he settled him in the back. Joe saw his father’s eyes twinkling and laughed, Ben’s laughter soon joined his son’s.
Hoss tied Ben and Joe’s horses to the back of the buckboard and then mounted his own horse to ride beside Adam.
Towards the end of that first day on the trail home, the Cartwrights made camp. Ben sat beside Joe, heating some stew while Adam and Hoss bedded the horses down for the night.
Later, with everyone sitting near the fire, Ben dished up the food. Joe proceeded to push his around half heartedly.
The family noticed that something was worrying Joe, he kept glancing around and couldn’t seem to relax. The others looked at each other and shrugged not knowing what the problem might be.
“What’s wrong, son?” Ben asked, “Are you in pain?” he reached out to touch Joe’s forehead, reassured when he felt no fever.
“I don’t know,” Joe answered distractedly, seeing the worried looks on the faces of his family, he tried to set aside the uneasy feeling he had and said, “I’m fine. Just anxious to be home, I guess.”
“Are you sure that’s all it is?” Ben asked.
Joe nodded and attacked his food with gusto hoping to convince not only his father that there was nothing wrong, but himself as well.
The elder Cartwrights continued to keep an eye on the youngest. It had been a long day and when Joe finally fell asleep, the others weren’t long in joining him.
Hearing a cry, Ben’s eyes shot open and he sat up, it was still night but the fire gave off enough light to see and Ben was horrified at the sight that met his eyes.
Joe had been pulled to his feet and behind him stood Saunders, holding a gun to the boy’s head. Leduque stood beside them, a gun held in his hand.
Adam and Hoss had also woken at the noise and like their father, jumped to their feet, hands reaching for their guns. They were as shocked as their father at what they saw and all three men were angry at themselves for not having thought to have one of them stand watch.
Saunders jerked Joe roughly, making him cry out. He savagely pushed the gun barrel into the side of Joe’s face, drawing blood.
“Put the guns down now or Saunders will shoot him,” Leduque said cruelly.
“Leduque, I’m warning you now. If my son is harmed any further, I’ll shoot you down and send you on your way to hell because that’s surely where you belong,” Ben’s eyes were filled with fear for his son and fury at Leduque and Saunders for what they were doing to the boy, “Let him go!”
Leduque shook his head. “You ruined my life, Cartwright. You have everything while I have nothing except a crippled leg. I thought it was way past time I evened things out. I’ll tell you what,” Leduque looked coldly into Ben’s eyes, “I’ll make you a deal. I’ll take your life or his,” Leduque nodded towards Joe and Saunders shook him once again, Joe bit his lip to stop himself from crying out, “You choose.”
Without hesitation, Ben said, “Let him go, Leduque, and you can do whatever you want to me.”
“Pa, no!” Joe screamed, twisting, he brought an elbow back and struck Saunders hard in the face. Pulling free, Joe kicked the man in the groin. Lunging for Leduque, Joe fell as Saunders reached for him again.
Adam had just been waiting for an opportunity, as soon as Joe pulled free, Adam shot Saunders, killing him instantly.
In the confusion of the moment, Leduque turned toward Joe gun in hand. “Leduque!” Ben yelled. Leduque swung his gun in Ben’s direction. Two guns fired. Leduque’s bullet went wide, Ben’s hit its target.
Ben rushed to his youngest son’s side, seeing the blood staining the back of Joe’s jacket, he knew the wound had broken open, carefully he rolled Joe over.
“He’s still alive. Just,” Adam called over as he checked Leduque, he glanced at Saunders, “The other one’s dead.”
Ben nodded distractedly. Hoss handed his father a canteen and Ben wet his kerchief and wiped it over Joe’s face hoping to rouse him. Joe started to murmur and move, his eyes flickered and opened. “Pa,” he said happily as he opened his eyes to see his father leaning over him, “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine, Joe. Don’t worry about me.” Gently rolling Joe onto his side, Ben continued, “You’ve broken your stiches open, try and hold still while I have a look.” Hoss helped his father clean the blood away. They were both relieved that it didn’t look like too much damage had been done. They soon had the wound cleaned and bandaged.
Joe turned his head slightly and saw Adam standing over Leduque, “Pa, Leduque and Saunders, are they….” Joe started to ask.
“Shhh,” Ben replied, comfortingly, “They can’t hurt you anymore.” Ben picked Joe up and carefully placed him on the bedroll that Hoss had straightened out. “This is the second time in two weeks that you’ve saved my life, Joe. You are making quite a habit out of this,” he said as he pulled the blankets up over the boy.
“Anytime,” Joe replied softly, smiling up at his father before closing his eyes. Ben stayed with Joe until he was asleep and only then did Ben turn his attention to Leduque.
Adam had put a shirt to the wound in Leduque’s stomach to staunch the flow of blood but there had been little else he could do. Adam had kept one anxious eye on his little brother while Ben and Hoss had been looking after him and the other eye on Leduque. Adam knew Leduque was mortally wounded but he felt no sympathy for the man. He doubted Leduque had the strength to try anything but he was taking no chances.
Ben knelt down next to the dying man. “Why did you do this, Leduque? Why did you try to turn my son into a killer? Was your hate for me so strong that you would destroy a boy’s life because of it?”
“It was the best way to hurt you. I wanted to make you suffer the way I’ve suffered all these years because of you.” Even though he knew he was dying, Leduque was unwilling to let go of the hate that had been a part of his life for so long.
Ben shook his head at the insanity of the man and said, “You’re the one that ruined your life Leduque. A bullet crippled your leg but hate crippled your mind. You let it eat away at you until it was the only thing you were living for.”
For a moment, Ben saw a flicker in Leduque’s eyes that may have been regret but then it was gone as Leduque shuddered and drew his last breath.
The next morning, the Cartwrights buried Leduque and Saunders. Ben stood next to the graves, he looked over to the buckboard where Adam and Hoss were helping Joe into the back, then turned his eyes back to the graves and said, “I promised Joe we’d keep him safe from you and now he is because you can’t hurt him anymore. Maybe God will forgive you, Leduque, but I won’t.” Determined that he would once again relegate Leduque to the past and not dwell on the man and his madness, Ben turned and walked over to join his sons.
A month later, Doctor Martin pronounced Joe fit to start riding again, much to the young man’s relief. Joe had been gone from the house for a few hours when Ben started to worry and decided to go looking for him.
Ben made his way to the grave that overlooked the lake. When he saw Cochise, head down, cropping grass, he knew his instinct about where to look first had been correct. Dismounting he walked over to his son. Joe turned at the noise, “Hello, Pa,” Joe said, when his saw his father.
Ben sat down beside Joe and put an arm around his shoulders. “I was worried about you. You’ve been gone quite a while. Are you all right?”
Joe nodded. “I’m sorry,
“I understand, son,” Ben replied, “Do you feel like talking about it?”
“This all started because my mother paid that blackmailer, La Roche,” Joe said quietly, he wasn’t sure how Ben would feel about talking about the events of all those years ago.
Ben though, understood Joe’s need to talk about it and so, difficult as it might be for him, he promised himself that he would answer all of his son’s questions.
Ben nodded encouragingly and Joe continued, “I know before, when Leduque came to Virginia City and said he wanted you to go back to New Orleans and stand trial for the murder of La Roche, you told me that what my mother did before you met her was of no importance to you.”
“That’s honestly how I feel, Joe. I loved your mother, I still do. It never mattered to me what had happened in her past.”
“It matters to me,” Joe said the words so quietly that Ben had to lean further towards Joe to hear them.
“Oh, Joe,” Ben said sadly, “Don’t let what
happened with Leduque tarnish the memories you have of your mother. I know that
Marie had some very difficult years in
“But didn’t you wonder?” Joe asked.
“No,” Ben shook his head, “Your mother started a new life out here with me and her past never came between us. I never regretted for an instant that I married her. We didn’t have many years together but they were happy ones. And she gave me you,” Ben slowly stroked his hand up and down his son’s arm, “I thank God for bringing her into my life.”
Joe didn’t say anything and Ben gently turned his sons face towards him, seeing the tears pooled in Joe’s eyes. “Let it go, Joe. Leave the past where it belongs, don’t drag it up and carry it with you like Leduque did for the rest of your life. Marie loved you so much. It would break her heart to know that something she had done in the past had brought you so much unhappiness now. Keep the memories of your mother happy ones, Joe. She deserves that.”
Joe nodded and wiped the tears away, smiling at his father, he said, “You’re right. The memories I have of her are happy ones and that’s the way I want to remember her. Whatever Mama did before she married you, doesn’t change the person she was, the person that I knew. I will always lover her, Pa, and nothing could ever change that.” Joe looked into his father’s eyes, and said softly, “Thank you, Pa, for helping me to understand.”
Ben pulled Joe closer to him and father and son sat together, sharing memories of a woman long dead but still deeply loved.
Note: The character of Charles Leduque and references to his previous encounters with Ben are from the episode, “The Stranger.”