THIS STORY IS WRITTEN FOR PLEASURE NOT PROFIT AND IS NOT INTENDED TO INFRINGE ON ANY KNOWN COPYRIGHT

 

 

 

GOOD  OVER  EVIL

 

 

A  Bonanza  Story

 

By  Kate

 

 

The autumn sunshine was warm, though the cloudless sky presaged a frosty night ahead. Beneath the trees, still dusty from hot, dry, summer days, two young boys were gathering pine nuts that had fallen among the undergrowth.

 

The taller of the two, a blonde, stocky child clad in ill fitting pants and faded shirt, straightened up from his task and turned to look back at his friend. “Hey, Joe! It’s getting late, time I got on home.”

 

Joe Cartwright looked up at his friend’s call. He was the very antithesis of the blonde youngster, shorter and slight of build, with glossy brown curls and hazel-green eyes alight with mischief. Squinting up through the trees, he saw that the sun was already beginning to drop low in the sky, afternoon was turning into evening. He hadn’t realised how late it was, engrossed as he had been on the task in hand.

 

“I’d better head for home as well,” he said, walking across to join his friend. “Or I’ll be late for supper, and then I’ll be in trouble with Pa.” He handed the bag of pine nuts he was carrying to the blonde boy. “You take these, Andy, and I’ll see you tomorrow at school, all right?”

 

The boy nodded and watched for a moment as Joe headed back to where he had left his horse, tethered by the side of the path. Joe’s home was a considerable distance away and Andy would be surprised if his friend did make it back in time for supper. And knowing how insistent Joe’s father was about punctuality at meal times he would indeed be in trouble. Andy grinned, there were compensations, he thought, for having a family like his, no one bothered overmuch if he was on time for meals. Slinging the heavy bag of pine nuts over his shoulder he started off towards his home.

 

Behind him, concealed in the bushes, the man hesitated for a moment, then began to follow.

 

****

 

 

A knock on his bedroom door roused Joe from sleep early the next morning

 

“C’mon Joe,” his brother Hoss called, opening the door and peering around it. “Better be on time for breakfast, especially after last night.”

 

Joe yawned and stretched, reluctant to leave the warm bed and get ready for another day at school. School was not the boy’s favourite place, he was an able but reluctant scholar, doing just as much as was necessary to keep the teacher and his father happy.

 

Tossing the covers aside, he headed for the washstand. Hoss was right, he thought, his father had been annoyed at his tardiness last night, best not aggravate matters further by being late this morning.

 

Dragging a brush through his tangled locks Joe was surprised to hear hoofbeats from beneath his window as a horse galloped into the yard followed moments later by a frantic knocking on the door.

 

The boy was just about to go and investigate who could be visiting this early in the day when he heard his father call his name. Descending the stairs rapidly in response to the summons Joe found the visitor revealed as Mr Perkins, his friend Andy’s father.

 

“Joseph,” Ben came over to his son and put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Did you see Andy Perkins yesterday, after school?”

 

“We went down by the river, collecting pine nuts,” Joe looked from his father to Mr Perkins, puzzled. “Why, did we do something wrong?”

 

“No, no,” his father reassured him. “It’s just that Mr Perkins wants to know where Andy was going when you saw him last, he didn’t go home last night and his family are worried about him.”

 

“He said he was going home,” Joe told his father, he glanced across at Mr Perkins and saw the fear that crossed the man’s face at his answer.

 

“I guess I’d better let the sheriff know.” Perkins said, turning to leave. “I hoped maybe it was some kind of prank the boys were playing. I just pray he’s all right.”

 

“I’ll ride in to town with you Bob,” Ben’s eldest son Adam spoke up, rising from his place at the table. “Seems to me you’ll need as many people as you can to search. You coming Hoss?” he asked his brother as he went to collect his gun belt and hat.

 

Hoss nodded. “If that’s all right Pa?”

 

“You go on,” Ben told him. “Work can wait till the boy is found. I’ll take Joe to school and then I’ll join you.”

 

“Take me to school!” Joe exclaimed, staring at his father in dismay. “I don’t need taking to school Pa.

 

“Somebody needs to tell Miss Jones why Andy isn’t there,” Ben told the boy soothingly, hoping his son would accept this explanation. He would speak to Joe’s teacher of course, but the main reason for escorting Joe to school was the uneasiness Ben felt over Andy Perkins disappearance, he wanted to be sure his son was safe until they found out what fate had befallen the boy.

 

****

 

 

“Good morning, Joe,” the speaker was a young man, standing by the schoolhouse door when Ben and Joe walked up. “I assume that you are Joe’s father,” the man continued holding out a hand to Ben.

 

“Ben Cartwright,” Ben affirmed, shaking hands. “I’m afraid you have the advantage of me Mr…?”

 

“Johnson,” the young man supplied, smiling affably. “Peter Johnson. I’m here to take over from Mr Roberts for a while. He’s been called away on family business.”

 

Ben looked the man over. He seemed a little youthful to be taking on the job of school principal, but no doubt the school board had approved his appointment. “I’m afraid Andy Perkins won’t be joining you this morning Mr Johnson,” he told the young man. “It appears he didn’t get home last night. There’s a search party out looking for him now.”

 

Johnson looked down at Joe. “Go along in now,” He told him. “We don’t want you to be late for class do we?” As soon as the boy had gone into the schoolhouse Johnson turned back to Ben. “Is there anything I can do to help?” he asked. “Andy’s parents must be frantic.”

 

“They’re very worried naturally. I’m just going to help with the search myself. I think the best thing you can do, Mr Johnson, is to keep the children from speculating too much on what has happened, after all Andy could turn up safe and well.” Ben hoped that this would be the case, but he knew that each passing hour made it more unlikely.

 

“I’ll do that Mr Cartwright,” Johnson assured him. “It’s been a pleasure to meet you, sir,” he added as Ben turned to leave. “Your son has spoken of you often. Joe is a fine boy if a trifle high spirited at times.”

 

Joe was certainly that, Ben reflected with a wry smile, as he headed out to the Perkins’ place to join the searchers, though it was odd that his son hadn’t mentioned Mr Johnson to him.

 

****

 

 

Reaching the Perkins’ home Ben was met by the sheriff of Virginia City, Roy Coffee.

 

“Adam and Hoss are out with the searchers,” he told Ben. “They’re combing the area between the river and here, the route young Andy should have taken last night. If that turns up nothing we’ll have to spread out some more.”

 

Ben rode to join the men, keeping alert along the way, eyes peeled for anything out of the ordinary. Seeing the search group he dismounted and walked towards them, he was still some distance away when he heard a yell go up from one of the men, “Over here!” Ben’s heart sank as he saw the man who had called out. He was down on his knees beside the river, one arm reaching into the swift flowing water.

 

The group had gathered on the bank by the time Ben reached them. A strange stillness had descended upon them as they caught sight of what was in the water. Andy was just below the surface. His clothes appeared to be caught on some underwater branch or root, stopping him from being dragged along by the current, blonde hair flowed out around his head like a halo.

 

“Dear Lord,” Adam broke the silence. “Poor kid,” he moved forward to assist with dragging the body from the river.

 

“I’m so sorry Bob,” Ben turned to Andy’s father, who stood, shocked into immobility, just staring into the water, his gaze blank.

 

As they pulled the boy onto the bank it became obvious what had killed him, the back of Andy’s head was smashed in. The deputy sheriff, Clem, stepped forward to examine the body. “Sure don’t look like no accident to me,” He said gravely. “But we’ll wait and see what the Doc reckons.”

 

****

 

 

It was a dejected group of men who waited while one of their number went to fetch a wagon to transport the body to the doctor’s office.

 

“How do I tell his Ma?” Bob Perkins asked Ben miserably. “How do I tell her our boy’s never coming home again Ben?” he stared over at the small figure lying on the riverbank. “My poor Andy,”

 

Ben could only squeeze the man’s arm in silent sympathy. He was desperately sorry for Perkins, but could not help the feeling of relief that his own young son was safe. It could so easily have been Joe lying there, he realised. Whatever had happened to Andy, and like Clem, Ben suspected foul play, the boys had been together just a short time before.

 

“I’ll take you on home if you’d like, Bob,” Adam offered, “Help you break the news.”

 

Accepting the offer, Bob Perkins left with Adam, looking back despairingly at his son’s body as he left the scene.

 

Ben went to stand beside his middle son, Hoss. The seventeen-year-old was looking pale. Like his father he was only too aware that it could have been Little Joe they pulled from the river.

 

“I feel bad for the Perkins family,” he said looking at Ben. “But I’m glad it’s not our family that’s grieving. Is that wrong of me Pa?”

 

Ben looked up at his son. Though only seventeen, the boy was taller than his father, a gentle giant of a man. “It’s understandable, Hoss. I feel the same way myself.” And, he thought to himself, he was going to have to tell Joe what had happened, the thought filled him with dread. Joe and Andy had been friends for a long time; his youngest was going to be devastated by the news.

 

****

 

 

It had been a strange day at school for Joe, wondering where Andy was and hoping he would show up. Just after lunch the sheriff’s deputy had arrived to speak with Miss Jones and Mr Johnson. Although neither teacher had said anything about the visit, Joe had begun to feel a sense of unease. He had half expected his father to meet him after classes and was startled when he came out of the school house to find his eldest brother waiting in the yard for him. Looking around he was surprised to see that most of his schoolmates were being met. “Did you find Andy?” he asked Adam urgently.

 

In reply his brother just grasped his arm and drew him towards the street, where their horses waited.

 

“Adam!” Joe demanded loudly, pulling away.  “I asked if you found Andy?”

 

Adam glanced down at his younger brother. “Why don’t we just get on home. Pa will be there soon and he’ll tell you all about it.”

 

Adam’s answer sent a shiver of fear through Joe and he halted beside the horses. “I want you to tell me now. I’m not a baby Adam, Andy’s my friend and I want to know what’s happened to him.”

 

Adam sighed; he looked down at Joe, seeing the determination on the boy’s face, “All right,” he conceded. “I agree, you should be told.” He put his hands on his brother’s shoulders. Pa wasn’t going to be happy about this, he thought, he had wanted to tell Joe himself. “I’m sorry buddy. The search party found Andy’s body in the river.”

 

For a long moment Joe just stared up at his brother, unable to take in the news. His thoughts flashed back to the previous afternoon, Andy searching happily for pine nuts. “No!” he exclaimed softly. “What happened Adam, did he fall in?”

 

“Pa’s at the doctors’ with him at the moment. He’ll let us know what happened later.”

 

Joe’s gaze fell away from his brothers’ as the enormity of what had happened began to sink in. He had known Andy since the Perkins’ family arrived in Virginia City four years before. The two boys had quickly become friends. That he would never see Andy again was unthinkable. Feeling tears well up, he turned to his horse and quickly mounted. “Let’s get home,” he said, face averted from Adam.

 

Adam swung up into the saddle. He had heard the emotion in the boy’s voice and knew his little brother was grieving for his friend. Wordlessly, the two brothers headed towards home.

 

****

 

 

Reaching the ranch house Joe slid down from his horse and made for the door. Dismounting behind him Adam grasped the reins of the boy’s horse and looped them round the hitching post. He was doing the same with his own horse when Hoss came out to join him

 

“You told Joe? You know Pa said to leave it to him.”

 

“I had to tell him, Hoss,” Adam started towards the house. “He knew something was wrong and he wanted to know what. What did he say?”

 

“Nothing. He just ran up the stairs like the devil himself was chasing him.”

 

Taking off his gun belt and putting it down on the credenza, Adam crossed over to the couch and sat down heavily. “He’s taking it badly. He never spoke all the way home, but I could see he was crying. I don’t know how Pa’s going to break it to him that Andy was murdered.”

 

“You think he was?”

 

Leaning back, Adam closed his eyes for a moment, remembering what he had seen on the riverbank. “I don’t think it was an accident. Looked to me like someone had beaten that boy to death.”

 

The sound of a horse riding in to the yard caused both brothers to look up. “That must be Pa,” Hoss said. “Guess we’ll find out if it was murder now.”

 

Ben entered the room moments later; his expression grave as he looked at his two eldest sons “Did you pick Joseph up all right?” he asked Adam who nodded in reply. “I’d better let him know what’s happened,” he continued heading for the stairs. “I take it he’s in his room?”

 

“Adam already told him,” Hoss told his father. “He knows Andy’s dead.”

 

Ben halted on the first step and turned to face Adam. “I thought I told you to let me handle this.”

 

“I know you did,” Adam agreed. “But Joe knew something was wrong. You know what the kid is like, he wanted to know what happened and I thought he had a right to know.”

 

“You’re right I suppose,” Ben conceded, coming back to stand before the hearth. “Trouble is the doctor says Andy was murdered,” Adam and Hoss glanced at each other as their father confirmed what Adam had thought. “I have to tell Joe and then Roy wants to ask him some questions,” he fixed dark eyes on Adam. “How did he take the news?”

 

“He was pretty upset, as you’d expect. He’s been friends with the Perkins boy for years.”

 

Ben looked up the stairs and sighed. “I wish I could spare him this,” he said softly.

 

****

 

 

Entering Joe’s room Ben found his youngest son lying face down on the bed, head buried in the pillow, trying vainly to contain his sobs.

 

Ben sat down beside the boy, laying a sympathetic hand on Joe’s shoulder. Joe twisted round to face his father, eyes red rimmed from crying looked up at Ben. “Adam told me about Andy,” the child’s voice was thick with tears. “What happened Pa? Did he fall in the river?”

 

Ben looked down at his son, seeing the distress written on his youthful features. “No Joseph, I’m afraid he didn’t. It seems that after Andy left you last night he was attacked by someone. Andy was killed, Joe, murdered.”

 

He saw shock leap into Joe’s eyes as he took in his father’s words. Gently Ben pulled his son into his arms and held him tightly as the boy cried for his friend.

 

****

 

 

“Now, Little Joe,” Roy Coffee, seated in the chair by the fire looked at the boy across from him. Joe was pale and grim faced but composed. Ben sat beside his son, Adam and Hoss stood behind. The Cartwright family, Roy thought wryly, what touched one touched them all. “I’ve got to ask you a few questions. So we can try and find out who killed Andy, you understand that?” Joe nodded mutely. “Right,” Roy began. “Just tell me exactly what the two of you did last night after school.”

 

Slowly, Joe told the sheriff all the details he could remember of the previous afternoon.

 

“Then I just said goodbye and went back to my horse,” he finished.

 

“And you saw no-one around? Just you and Andy?”

 

“I didn’t see anyone.”

Roy hesitated. He knew that the next question he asked would incense Ben and the two older boys, but it was a question that he had to ask nevertheless. “You didn’t fight with Andy yesterday did you Joe?” he asked, eyes searching the boy’s face.

 

“No,” Joe’s denial was quick. “Andy was my friend.”

 

“And he was fine when you left him?” Roy saw Ben stiffen as he realised where the questions were leading. He hated having to ask, but as a lawman he knew that anyone could be driven to kill, even a child, and everyone knew Little Joe possessed a volatile temper. And anger gave extra strength.

 

“Yes, he was.” Joe too had realised what these questions meant. “I didn’t hurt Andy, Sheriff Coffee,”

 

Roy,” Ben’s voice was shocked. “You can’t think Joe had anything to do with it?”

 

“No, of course not Ben,” Roy assured him. “But I had to ask. I’m sorry.”

 

****

 

Ben looked across the open grave at Bob Perkins and his wife. The couple seemed to have aged ten years in two days, Mrs Perkins’ clinging despairingly to her husband as they watched their young son being laid to rest.  Feeling Joe’s hand clasp his, Ben looked down at his son. Joe had been very quiet since Andy’s death, he hadn’t been sleeping well and had little appetite. Ben had allowed the boy to stay home from school but had decided that he would send him back tomorrow. Perhaps the company of the other children might help him come to terms with what had happened.

 

Joe hardly heard the words the minister was saying, he held fast to his father’s hand, seeking comfort from the touch. It was hard to take in that Andy was gone, that he would never see him again. Memories of his friend chased through his mind, Andy fishing with him by the lake, playing games in the schoolyard and that last fateful afternoon beneath the pines. He shuddered as he recalled a conversation he had overheard yesterday between his brothers when Adam told Hoss the extent of Andy’s injuries.

 

Feeling the shudder, Ben put an arm round his son’s shoulders and drew him to his side. The service was almost over. It was a shame, Ben thought, that the minister was new to Virginia City, he had only been there a month and hardly knew the Perkins. It made the service a little impersonal though the man was doing his best.

 

As the service finished, Ben left Joe with Adam and Hoss and went across to offer his condolences to Bob Perkins. Mrs Perkins, distraught, was being led away by her sister.

 

“Bob, I can’t tell you how sorry we all are,” he said, putting a consoling hand on the man’s shoulder.

 

Bob looked up at him. “Thank you for coming, it helps to see so many people here, to know others are thinking of us,” he glanced around the cemetery, at the many friends who had attended the funeral, his eyes falling on Mr Johnson talking to the minister beside the grave. “Even the school principal,” he said wryly. “Though he didn’t know my boy very well and I don’t think Andy liked him much either.”

 

Ben followed Perkins’ gaze. Johnson was standing alone now looking down into the grave, the minister having walked off to speak to Adam.

 

As other friends came over to speak to Bob, Ben excused himself and went to join his sons.

 

“Ah, Mr Cartwright,” the minister turned to greet him as he reached Adam’s side. “I was just saying to your son what a sad duty this has been for me to perform. I don’t know the Perkins’ very well but Andy seemed a fine boy.”

 

“He was. The service went very well, I’m sure the Perkins’ are most appreciative.”

 

“Has the sheriff any idea of who killed the poor child? I hate to think of the murderer still being at large in Virginia City.”

 

Feeling Joe’s hand slide into his, Ben realised how much this conversation was upsetting his young son.

 

Adam had seen the look that crossed Joe’s face as the minister asked his question and guessed the boy was close to breaking down. Looking around he was thankful to catch sight of Roy Coffee by the cemetery gate. “Why don’t you ask Sheriff Coffee?” he said. “I see he’s just over there, and we really have to be getting back to the ranch.”

 

Grateful for Adam’s intervention, Ben led his sons away.

 

****

 

 

“How was school?” Ben asked as Joe entered the house, Hoss right behind him. To Joe’s disgust he had been escorted to school by Adam and met by Hoss, he had tried arguing against this with his father that morning but Ben had held firm.

 

“It was all right,” In truth it had been an ordeal. All his schoolmates were very subdued, and every time Joe had caught sight of Andy’s empty chair grief had swept over him, leaving him close to tears.

 

As Joe went up to his room Adam returned from town. Entering the house he came straight over to see his father. “I just spoke to Roy. He’s no nearer to finding out who killed Andy,” sitting down on the edge of Ben’s desk he looked at his father and brother. “Roy’s spoken to everyone he can think of. No-one knows of any reason for the boys death. He was a popular kid, everyone seemed to like him.”

 

Ben sighed. “I hate to think that the murderer of an innocent boy like that is still at large,” he said sadly.

 

****

 

 

Joe slid down from his horse and walked across to the lakeside. He knew his father wouldn’t be pleased that he was out here alone, he was supposed to stay at home. In the last two weeks, since Andy’s death, his father and brothers had rarely let him out of their sight. This morning, however, Ben and Hoss had gone into town and Adam was down at the corral with the horses. Left to his own devices, Joe had decided to ride out to the lake. He knew that if he asked Adam if he could go, as he should have done, the answer would be no. Telling himself that as long as he was still on the Ponderosa his father couldn’t complain too much, he saddled up his horse and headed out.

 

Skimming stones over the calm waters of the lake he felt guilty about leaving the ranch, but pleased to be on his own for a while. Leading his horse he headed off along the lakeside intending to walk to the place where he, Andy and Mitch used to go fishing. Joe hadn’t bothered to bring his jacket and the breeze struck chill through his shirtsleeves, the weather had turned much cooler this past week as summer passed into autumn. Walking head down, looking for smooth stones to skim, Joe was startled to hear the sound of a scream.

 

Looking around he could see no sign of anyone, but then the scream came again, and it seemed to come from a stand of pines some distance away over to his right. Joe hesitated, unsure what to do. Someone was obviously in trouble, and if he went back to the ranch for help, it could take too long. Deciding to go and see what was wrong, Joe mounted his horse and rode rapidly towards the trees. As he drew nearer he heard the sound of galloping hooves and caught sight of a chestnut horse heading away.

 

He walked his own horse in beneath the trees, looking around him for the source of the scream. His attention was caught by what looked at first to be a heap of rags beneath the pines. As he drew close though, he realised that he was looking at the crumpled form of a young boy. Sliding from his horse, Joe walked slowly toward the unmoving child. He was still some distance away when recognition hit him, he knew the boy from school. He was a couple of years younger than Joe, a quiet little boy called Danny Rogers. As Joe moved closer he saw the spread of red under Danny’s head and was seized with horror.

 

Trembling and sick to his stomach Joe turned away from the dreadful sight. He knew he had to get back to the ranch quickly and fetch Adam.

 

****

 

 

Adam was angry, he had come back to the ranch house for lunch and found Joe gone. Going outside to the stable he saw that the boy’s horse was also missing. He was about to saddle up and go look for his brother when the sound of galloping hooves caused him to rush to the stable door. He sighed with relief as he saw Joe rein in his horse and slide down from the saddle. Heading for his brother with the intention of giving the boy a stern lecture he stopped as he saw Joe’s face.

 

“What is it Joe? What’s happened?”

“Out by the lake,” Joe stumbled over the words. He was shaking, Adam saw, and white as a sheet. “Danny, Danny Rogers. He’s dead Adam, someone killed him, just like Andy.”

 

Adam put an arm around his brother, he had feared that this might happen when Roy had been unable to find Andy’s killer. “Can you show me where Joe?” he asked gently.

 

Joe nodded. He was scared to go back to where Danny lay but knew it would be difficult for Adam to find the body without him.

 

“Good boy,” Adam gave his little brother a reassuring hug. Instructing one of the hands to go and fetch Sheriff Coffee, he went to hitch up a wagon to transport the body. Tying his own and Joe’s horse to the wagon, the two brothers’ set out on their grim mission.

 

****

 

“Did you recognise the man on the horse?” Roy asked Joe quietly. He could see that the boy was very upset but he needed to ask him the question.

 

Joe shook his head. “He was too far away, and I only saw him for a moment,” his gaze looked beyond Roy to where his brother was standing watching the doctor examine Danny’s body.

 

“All right, Joe,” Roy said with a sigh. When Adam had told him Joe had caught a glimpse of the man who had done this he had hoped that the boy might have been able to identify him, but Joe had seen very little.

 

As Roy straightened up after his talk to Little Joe he saw Ben and Hoss riding towards them across the meadows.

 

“Joseph,” Ben reined in his horse and dismounted quickly, heading for his youngest son.

 

Ben had been in town when he heard the news that another child had been murdered, and that his son had found the body. He and Hoss had ridden out as fast as possible.

 

Reaching his son, Ben looked with concern at the boy. Joe’s eyes were wide with horror, his face ashen. He looked up at his father blankly, scarcely registering his presence.

 

“Joseph,” Ben said again, enfolding the boy in his arms. At his father’s touch Joe shuddered violently, then flinging his arms around Ben he broke into despairing sobs.

 

“It’s all right,” Ben soothed. “I’m here now son, it’s all right,” over the boy’s head Ben saw Adam and the doctor lift the still form of Danny Rogers into the wagon.

 

****

 

 

Roy he’s only just eleven!” Ben exclaimed angrily.

 

“I know that,” Roy looked up at his old friend apologetically. “I don’t believe for a moment that Joe had anything to do with these murders. I’m only telling you what people have been saying.”

 

“Joe’s a child!” Adam was just as angry as his father. “He’s upset enough over this business without this. How can anyone possibly suggest he could be involved?”

 

“It wouldn’t be the first time a child had killed other children,” Roy said uncomfortably. “And everyone knows what Joe’s temper is like.”

 

“So the kid has a bad temper,” Adam was incredulous. “That hardly makes him a murderer!”

 

“Joe wouldn’t hurt anyone.” Hoss said. “He didn’t do it sheriff.”

 

Roy sat down on the couch. He wasn’t happy to be telling Ben about the gossip circulating in Virginia City, but he knew someone had to. After the discovery of Danny’s body and the painful business of informing his parents Roy had received several visitors who had politely suggested that there was no smoke without fire. Joe Cartwright had been closely linked to both recent deaths, perhaps he might have something to do with it.

 

“I had to get Doc Martin to give him something to calm him down,” Ben told him now. “Joe is devastated by this Roy. First his best friend is murdered and then he finds the body of another murdered child.”

 

“Besides, you saw the trail left by the rider Joe saw,” Adam put in.

 

Roy nodded. “There was definitely a rider up that way, but there often are. We lost the trail when it reached the Virginia City road, just too many horses pass that way.”

 

“How’d the Rogers child get out there if he wasn’t taken by the killer?” Adam asked. “Joe left here on his own.”

 

Roy sighed, looking apologetically at the three men facing him, “The boy’s pony came home on its own. It’s possible that Joe met Danny up by the lake,” seeing the expression on Ben’s face he continued hastily. “I already said I don’t believe it, but folks talk Ben.”

 

****

 

“Children talk Mr Cartwright,” Mr Johnson stood uneasily in front of Ben’s desk. He had come to suggest to Ben that it might be better if Joe stayed away from school for a while and he had found Joe’s father in a very angry mood.

 

“Are you telling me not to send Joseph to school?” Ben inquired, his voice icy.

 

“I’m just saying that I feel it would be best for Joe,” Johnson’s voice was calm, trying to take the heat out of the situation. “I’m sure you don’t want the boy upset.”

 

Ben didn’t answer; he had seen his youngest son at the top of the stairs. “Joe,” he called. “Come down here please.”

 

Slowly Joe descended the steps. Reluctance apparent, he walked over to his father and Mr Johnson.

 

“Hello, Joe,” Mr Johnson put his arm around Joe’s shoulder. Ben saw his son stiffen beneath the man’s touch. “I just called in to see how you were.”

 

“I’m fine,” Joe mumbled. “Thank you, sir.”

 

“Mr Johnson thinks it might be a good idea if you stayed home from school for a while,” Ben told his son. “What do you think?”

 

Joe looked from his father to Mr Johnson. He had overheard part of what had passed between the two men. He knew some of the kids were saying that he could be the one who killed Andy and Danny. It was tempting to stay away from school, to remain on the Ponderosa where he knew his father and brothers’ believed him implicitly, but he felt that staying away might give the kids more reason to think him guilty. “I reckon I should go to school, Pa,” he said firmly, his father’s pleased smile telling him that Ben thought he was doing the right thing.

 

“Very well,” Johnson said, dropping his arm from Joe’s shoulder. “I’ll expect to see you Monday morning then. Goodbye Mr Cartwright.”

 

As Johnson left, Ben turned to Joe. “You don’t have to go if you’d rather not. I’m not going to make you.”

 

“I’ll be fine Pa,”

 

Regarding his son’s downcast face, Ben reached out and tousled the boy’s hair. “How about you come into town with me tomorrow? Perhaps we could have dinner together.”

 

Joe smiled wanly. “Sure. That would be good.”

 

“Joe,” Ben was suddenly serious again. “Why don’t you like Mr Johnson?”

 

Joe looked up in surprise, he hadn’t realised his father had picked up on his feelings towards the school principal. “He’s all right, Pa. Just a bit strict perhaps.”

 

Ben regarded the boy gravely. He could tell from Joe’s tone that this wasn’t the reason, but he didn’t want to push him at the moment.

 

For his part, Joe hoped his father would accept what he said. It would be difficult to say why he really disliked Mr Johnson. Perhaps it was just that the teacher was too friendly. He was always touching. Bending close to Joe when helping him with work, putting an arm round his shoulders, patting his knee. It wasn’t just Joe, some of his friends had experienced it too. It made Joe feel uncomfortable.

 

“Why don’t you go out and help Hoss in the barn?” Ben suggested. He saw how relieved Joe was that he had dropped the subject and resolved to try and get to the bottom of it tomorrow.

 

****

 

 

“Hello there Little Joe, Mr Cartwright,” Abe Lewis, the storekeeper looked up as Ben and Joe entered. “What can I do for you?”

 

“I’ve a list of goods Hop Sing needs,” Ben said, walking over to the counter. “How are you, Abe?”

 

“Just fine, Mr Cartwright, just fine,” The little shopkeeper beamed, taking the list from Ben. “I think I’ve got all this in stock. It’ll take me a while to get it ready though.”

 

“That’s fine,” Ben told him. “Joe and I are going to have dinner at the International House.”

 

Abe looked over at Joe who was standing quietly waiting for his father. Bustling out from behind the counter he walked over to the boy. “I haven’t seen you in here for a while Little Joe,” he said, tousling Joe’s dark curls. “How about I get you some candy for after that fine meal your father’s buying you?”

 

Joe grinned at the little man. “Thanks, Mr Lewis. I’d like that.”

 

Ben saw Joe’s grin with relief. It had been a long time, he realised, since he had seen his son’s dazzling smile.

 

Abe reached up for one of the large glass jars on the shelf beside him. He took a sheet of paper and, with a quick twist, formed it into a cone in which he placed several pieces of candy and handed it to Joe. “On me, Mr Cartwright,” he said quickly, as he saw Ben reach for his wallet. “Enjoy your meal Little Joe,” He added, turning back to the boy.

 

“I will, Mr Lewis. And thanks.”

 

Abe watched as the Cartwrights left, then began to fill Ben’s order.

 

****

 

 

“Mr Cartwright!” Ben looked round as he heard the shout, to see the minister walking rapidly towards him. “Good afternoon Mr Cartwright, Joseph,” he said, reaching Ben where he stood waiting on the boardwalk outside the telegraph office. “I’m glad I saw you.”

 

“Is there something I can do for you minister?” Ben asked. “Joe and I are just on our way to get dinner.”

 

“I won’t keep you long. It’s about Danny Rogers’ funeral tomorrow. You will be there I take it?” He saw Ben’s nod of affirmation and glanced down at Joe. “I thought you would be. And I feel it’s my duty to warn you, Mr Cartwright, that feelings are running high in town. It might be better if Joe wasn’t there.”

 

“But I didn’t do anything,” Joe spoke up angrily. “And I’m not going to hide away as if I did!”

 

Ben placed a warning hand on his son’s shoulder. Truthfully he was pleased to see a flash of the boy’s temper, Joe had been far too quiet these last two weeks. “As my son says,” Ben told the minister coolly. “He has done nothing wrong and I won’t have him vilified for a crime he didn’t commit. We will all be at Danny Rogers’ funeral and anyone who wants to accuse my son of these horrendous crimes will have me to answer to.” He glared angrily at the minister who, unable to meet his gaze, looked at the floor. “Good afternoon to you,” Ben finished. “Come along, Joe.”

 

****

 

 

Standing by the graveside, Joe was acutely aware of the whispers around him. He tried to do as Adam had told him. “Keep your head high and face them down, Joe,” he’d said as they walked into the church.  He could feel his father’s hands on his shoulders and was aware of his brothers either side of him, but he could almost feel the accusing glances of some of the townsfolk. Lifting his head defiantly, he saw his friend Mitch looking his way. Seeing Joe look up Mitch gave him an encouraging grin. Joe felt instantly cheered, at least one of his friends believed him.

 

Ben, Adam and Hoss kept close to Joe, watching the people around them for any sign of trouble. Ben was finding it difficult to contain his anger. Joe had insisted that he wanted to attend the service and Ben had agreed, proud of the boy’s attitude, but he was worried about how all this was affecting him. Joe had been quiet and withdrawn for a long time now and Ben could only hope that Roy Coffee’s investigations would lead to the killer, clearing Joe’s name.

 

He had tried to make dinner the day before as light hearted as he could but Joe wouldn’t be cheered up and, not wishing to make matters worse, Ben hadn’t asked him any more questions about his aversion to Mr Johnson.

 

“Good afternoon Mr Cartwright, Adam, Hoss,” Abe Lewis came over as the service ended. Leaning down he spoke softly to Joe. “Don’t you worry none, Little Joe,” he said. “There’s plenty of people in this town know you didn’t do anything wrong.”

 

Ben felt a lift in his spirits as Joe smiled at Abe, pleased by the little shopkeepers’ words.

 

****

 

 

“You just let me know if you get any trouble, I’ll sort it out,” Hoss said anxiously as he parted from his brother in the schoolyard.

 

“Thanks, but I can stick up for myself, you know that,”

 

Hoss nodded; he knew Joe was well able to fight his own battles. “You’d better not get into any fights,” he warned the boy. “Pa’ll have your hide.”

 

“I’ll be fine. I’ll see you after school.”

 

Hoss bent suddenly and hugged him. Joe squirmed away, embarrassed, but secretly feeling glad of his brother’s support.

 

“See you,” he said and headed for the schoolhouse.

 

Hoss stood and watched till Joe was out of sight then started back to the ranch.

 

****

 

 

“Good morning, Joe,” Mr Johnson said as he entered the schoolroom. “Hurry and take your seat and we’ll get started.”

 

Mitch looked up as Joe slid into the seat next to him. “Glad you’re here,” he whispered.

 

“Now children,” Mr Johnson began loudly. “I’ll be taking the lessons today as Miss Jones is busy with the little ones.”

 

The morning dragged on for Joe much as normal. He tried hard to concentrate on the lessons but, as usual, found his thoughts more occupied with things he could be doing if he wasn’t in school.

 

Eventually, lunchtime arrived and Joe and Mitch settled down together to eat their meals.

 

“What’s Hop Sing packed for you today?” Mitch asked curiously, Joe’s lunches always seemed far more appealing than his did.

 

“Chicken,” Joe answered, delving into the bag. “And there’s some apple pie. I guess Hop Sings' trying to cheer me up with my favourites.”

 

“Well I know you didn’t do anything wrong,” Mitch declared staunchly. “And lots of the kids agree with me.” He watched as Joe put the chicken down untouched. “If you’re not gonna eat that…”

 

Joe grinned and passed the chicken over. As Mitch tucked in hungrily Mr Johnson came across to talk to them. “How are you getting on today Joe?” he enquired, hunkering down beside the boy and putting an arm round his shoulder. “Any trouble?”

 

“No, Sir,” Joe replied stiffly. “Everyone’s been fine.”

 

“Good, good. Well you let me know if you get any problems,” Johnson patted Joe’s leg then stood and walked away.

 

“I wish he wouldn’t do that,” Joe exclaimed angrily. “I just don’t like it.”

 

“That’s nothing,” Mitch told him. “You know Danny Rogers used to sit next to my sister in class?” Joe nodded. “Well he told her what Mr Johnson did to him,” Mitch’s tone was scornful.

 

“What?” Joe asked, puzzled. Mitch looked around then, leaning close, told his friend what he had been told.

 

****

 

 

“Sleep well, Joe,” Ben reached over to turn down the lamp. He was glad to find Joe hadn’t run into any trouble at school, it had been a worrying day for him, thinking of the problems his young son might be facing.

 

“Pa, can I speak to you about something?”

“Of course,” Ben came back to stand beside Joe’s bed. “What’s the problem?”

 

Joe hesitated. He had been thinking about this all afternoon, ever since Mitch told him what Danny had said. He knew that what Mr Johnson had done to Danny was wrong, but it was an embarrassing subject to speak about to his father. Joe knew, however, that Mr Johnson should be stopped. If what Danny had said was true, who knew how many other small children might have been involved.

 

“Mitch told me something,” Joe said at last. “Something real bad. About Mr Johnson.”

 

Ben sat down on the side of the bed, seeing the troubled look in his son’s eyes. “What did Mitch say?”

 

Joe looked across at the window, unwilling to meet his father’s eyes. “You know I don’t much like Mr Johnson.”

 

“I kind of guessed that,”

 

“Well it’s because he’s sort of,” Joe found himself stumbling over the words. He began to feel himself blushing, this was very embarrassing. “He touches,” he finally got out. “He’s always putting his arm round you, stuff like that, and Danny Rogers told Mitch’s sister that he…” Joe stopped, his face flaming.

 

Ben looked closely at his son. He guessed what Joe was trying to tell him, but needed to hear it from the boy before he did anything. “What exactly did Mr Johnson do to Danny?” he asked, trying to keep his voice calm.

 

“He touched him,” Joe said, his voice so quiet that Ben had to strain to hear. “Places he shouldn’t have, Pa.

 

“Joe,” Ben’s tone was urgent. “He’s never touched you that way, has he?”

 

“No!” Joe’s denial was immediate and Ben gave a sigh of relief. “Don’t worry,” he told his son, tucking the sheets around him. “I’ll deal with it. You just get off to sleep.”

 

Joe settled down for the night, happy to leave his father to deal with the problem of Mr Johnson.

 

****

 

 

“Calm down, Pa,” Adam said. “You’re shouting, and you’ll wake Hoss and Joe.”

 

Ben took a deep breath, trying to bring his anger under control. “It’s just the thought of that man. Taking advantage of children like that.”

 

“I agree. But at the moment we only have what the Rogers boy told Mitch’s sister. We can hardly get the man sacked on that evidence. If Danny was still alive to speak up it would be different.”

 

“We can’t let him carry on at the school!”

 

“The school board took him on,” Adam sat down on the couch. “First thing in the morning I’ll go see if I can get a look at his references, find out where he taught before. We could make a few discreet inquiries at his previous schools.”

 

“That doesn’t solve the immediate problem,” Ben paced the floor in agitation. “We can’t take the risk that he’s doing that to other children.”

 

“I’ll speak to Miss Jones. Let her know what Joe said and ask her to keep an eye out for any suspicious behaviour on Johnson’s’ part. She’s a sensible woman, and she’s very good with the little ones, I’ll ask her to talk to them, see if anyone else backs up Danny’s story.”

 

Reluctantly Ben agreed to his oldest son’s plan.

 

****

 

 

“You’re sure about this Adam?” Miss Jones was shocked at what Adam had told her. She didn’t hold any particular affection for Mr Johnson herself, considering him a bit aloof and stand-offish, but would never have suspected this.

 

“Joe says Mitch’s sister was adamant that Danny was telling the truth.”

 

“I have seen Mr Johnson put his arm round the boys,” Miss Jones mused. “I thought he was just being nice. Come to think of it though, he doesn’t do that with the girls. If anything he’s quite remote with them.”

 

“You’ll speak to the children? Discreetly of course, try not to frighten them.”

 

“I’ll see what I can find out,” she shuddered suddenly, her eyes worried as a thought occurred to her. “You don’t suppose? I mean if he was abusing Danny, then Danny gets killed.”

 

“I’d thought of it,” Adam admitted. “Especially when Pa told me Andy Perkins didn’t like Johnson either. But there’s no proof of anything at the moment.”

 

****

 

 

Adam waited impatiently for a reply to his telegraphs. He had seen the head of the school board, only to be told that Johnson had come to them with excellent references. The man had taught at two previous schools, one in San Francisco and one in Sacramento. Adam had wired both establishments, trying to word his inquiries as discreetly as possible, though judging by the look Jimmy Baker the telegraph operator had given him, he had aroused suspicion. He wondered how Miss Jones was getting on questioning the children. He himself had gone out to see Bob Perkins, but Andy’s father could only tell him that his son disliked Johnson, he never gave a reason why. If nothing came of the telegraphs he was going to have to speak to Danny’s family, he could only imagine the distress this would cause them.

 

“Something coming in Adam,” Jimmy called over. Adam left his seat by the wall and went to stand by the counter as Jimmy rapidly translated the blips and bleeps of the telegraph machine.

 

“Here you go,” Jimmy handed over the message. “From San Francisco.”

 

Adam scanned it quickly. “I’m going to see Sheriff Coffee,” he told Jimmy. “If the message from Sacramento gets here before I come back get someone to bring it over will you?”

 

“Sure thing,” Jimmy assured him as Adam left the office.

 

****

 

 

“I reckon the school board will act on this and remove the man from his post,” Roy said. He had just read the telegraph that had been received from the Boys Academy in San Francisco where Johnson had taught. The references were false, it said, Mr Johnson had been asked to leave their employ after certain allegations had been made about his abuse of young children. As it was just the children’s’ word against Johnson’s, and these were boys of six and seven, whose parents didn’t want them involved with a trial, charges had never been brought.

 

“You can’t arrest him?” Adam asked.

 

“I’ve got a problem,” Roy told him. “Danny’s not alive to give his version of events and what the little girl says is just hearsay. There’s enough here to get the man dismissed from his job, but not charged.”

 

“And have you thought that he could be your murderer? You can’t just let him go.”

 

“Of course I’ve thought of it. And I shall be investigating Johnson carefully, you can be sure of that.”

 

“What if he just leaves town?” Adam leaned on the sheriff’s desk and fixed his dark eyes on Roy. “What then, do you just let him go?”

 

“Let me do my job, Adam,” Roy said meeting the young man’s gaze. “I know how you feel, it turns my stomach to think what the man has been doing to innocent children, but I need proof.”

 

“And I’ve got it,” Both men turned at the words. Miss Jones stood just inside the door; neither man had noticed her come in. “I spoke to the children as Adam suggested,” she told Sheriff Coffee. “There are two other youngsters who Johnson had been,” she paused, searching for the right word, “‘interfering’ with. Two of my six year olds, I know the parents well and I’m sure they’ll want to press charges.”

 

The sheriff stood up and reached for his hat. “Then let’s get over to the school house.”

 

****

 

 

“Hey Pa,” Joe came charging into the house looking for his father. “Guess what happened?”

 

“What are you doing home at this time?” Ben asked, glancing at the clock. It was only just past lunchtime.

 

“We got let out early,” Joe told him eagerly. “Adam came over to the school with Sheriff Coffee and they took Mr Johnson away. Then Miss Jones said we might as well all go home for the rest of the day.”

 

Obviously Adam had found the proof he needed to get Johnson jailed, Ben just hoped that didn’t mean other children had been involved.

 

****

 

 

Over the next few weeks Virginia City settled back to normal. After the revelations about Mr Johnson became common knowledge it was tacitly understood by the townsfolk that he must also be the killer. For the man’s own safety Sheriff Coffee had him removed to Carson City to await trial.

 

****

 

 

“Joseph, answer the door please,” Ben looked up from where he was working at his desk. Adam was sitting in the chair by the fire engrossed in a book and Hoss and Joe were playing checkers.

 

With a resigned sigh Joe left the game and went to answer. “It’s Sheriff Coffee, Pa,” he called over to his father.

 

“Evening Ben, boys. Sorry to disturb you so late, but we’ve got another child missing and I’m looking for volunteers to join the search party at first light.”

 

“Of course,” Ben rose from his desk and walked across to join his old friend. “Who is it Roy?”

 

“Tommy Rogers,” Roy told them gravely. “Danny’s brother. He got home from school this afternoon, was home for a while then went out to meet some friends. The friends say he never arrived. We’ve looked along the road he should have taken but there’s no sign of him. I fear the worst Ben.”

 

“We’ll ride in for daybreak,” Adam assured him as Ben showed the sheriff out.

 

Standing on the porch in the cool night air, Ben turned to his friend. “At least there’s no way anyone can say Joe was involved this time. He came straight home from school and he’s been here ever since.”

 

“Nor Johnson either. He’s locked up in Carson City. It’s got me stumped Ben, I’m no nearer to finding the killer than I was at the start.”

 

“No suspects at all?”

 

“Like everyone else I’ve assumed it was Johnson. But now I just don’t know. There’s a couple of new folks in town, that I’ll be checking out. I’d hate to think it could be anyone I’ve known for years doing this.”

 

Ben nodded. Like Roy he’d known most of the people in Virginia City for a long time, it was hard to believe one of them could be a child killer.

 

****

 

 

There had been a heavy frost in the night and the ground was icy in patches as Adam and Hoss rode into Virginia City the next morning. It had been agreed that Ben would stay home with Joe. The boy hadn’t said much the previous evening but it was obvious the news had hit him hard. Tommy Rogers wasn’t a particular friend of Joe’s but he knew the boy well enough.

 

A small group of riders waited by the sheriff’s office in the cold, grey light of dawn, ready to start the grim search, all well aware of what they were likely to find.

 

“Morning, folks,” Roy came out of his office to greet the riders. “We’ll head out to the Rogers place first, then work back towards town. You all know what we’re looking for.”

 

****

 

 

Joe was clearing out the stable, one of his least favourite jobs, when Adam and Hoss returned late that afternoon. He could tell by the grim look on his brother’s faces that the news wasn’t good.

 

Ben came out of the house when he heard the horses ride in. He watched as his two eldest sons reined to a halt and dismounted.

 

“Same as the others,” Adam said as his father walked across to join him. “Found him about a mile out of town, head stove in like the other two.”

 

“Hop Sing kept some lunch for you,” Ben told his sons. “Go in and eat, Joe and I will see to the horses.”

 

Obediently, Adam and Hoss trudged dispiritedly towards the house. Ben took the reins of their horses and headed for the barn. He felt desperately sorry for the Rogers family, to lose both their sons in such a terrible way and within weeks. He couldn’t imagine the pain they must be going through.

 

Joe came to take one of the horses from his father. “I heard what Adam said. Poor Tommy.”

 

“You knew these boys well. Is there anything you can think of that might help Sheriff Coffee find who killed them? Did Andy or Tommy ever mention having any trouble with anyone, anything that was worrying them?”

 

Joe shook his head. “I’ve thought and thought about who could have killed Andy. And I just can’t think of anyone, everyone liked him.”

 

“They didn’t even have anything in common,” Ben said, taking the saddle off Adam’s horse and hanging it over the edge of the stall. “I know Tommy and Danny were brothers but they had different friends, different interests.”

 

“Except for the Bible reading class,” Joe said. “They were all in that. The Perkins and the Rogers are real religious and they used to send all their kids to the minister’s house for Bible reading.”

 

“They did?” Ben assumed that Roy Coffee must know about the Bible class, he had spoken to Andy and Danny’s parents about the boys. Wouldn’t hurt to be sure though, Ben thought, resolving to mention it to Roy next time he saw him.

 

****

 

 

“Yes I checked up on the Bible class,” Roy told him. “I’ve sent inquiries off to the minister’s last church as well, but I’m pretty sure it’s just a coincidence Ben.”

 

“Just thought you should know,” Ben told him, looking across the street to the mercantile where Joe was talking to Abe Lewis as the little shopkeeper helped the boy load provisions into the wagon.

 

“Thanks,” Roy said. “I’ll let you know if I hear anything back from my inquiries and if Joe does think of anything else come in and tell me. I need to get this killer Ben, the townsfolk are scared, frightened to let their kids out of their sight.”

 

Crossing the road to join his son at the mercantile Ben knew how the townsfolk felt. He had kept a very close watch on Joe lately, and he was beginning to fight against it. Watching his son speaking animatedly to Abe, his face alight with laughter Ben thought he would never be able to bear it if anything happened to the boy.

 

“Hello, Mr Cartwright,” Abe looked up from his work. “We’ve just about finished here.”

 

“Thank you, Abe,” Ben pulled his wallet from his pocket. “How much do I owe you?”

 

“Come on in the shop while I reckon it up,” Abe told him. He smiled over at Joe. “See if we can find some more candy for this young man, eh?”

 

Taking up his pencil, Abe began to add up the long column of figures whilst Ben waited and Joe wandered around the store looking at the merchandise.

 

“There you go,” Abe turned the paper around to show Ben the final figure. “Bad business about Tommy Rogers,” he said softly, glancing at Joe. “You must be pleased that it lets Joe off the hook though?”

 

“I don’t know that pleased is the right word where a boy’s death is concerned,” Ben said, handing over the cash payment. “But yes, I’m relieved that everyone knows Joe wasn’t involved.”

 

“Hey, Little Joe,” Abe called across to the boy, who was examining a display of multicoloured glass marbles. “Can I get you that candy?”

 

“Yes, please,” Joe grinned, digging in his pocket for a coin. “I’d best get some for Hoss as well,” he said. “You know how much he likes candy.”

 

****

 

 

“Please can I go fishing with Mitch?” Joe begged his father. “I haven’t been anywhere for ages now and we’ll be together.”

 

Ben was torn. There had been no further incidents in the past few months. Christmas had come and gone and, gradually, the killings had faded in people’s memory. Once more the children of Virginia City were allowed out on their own.

 

It was early March and the snows had melted after a harsh winter; everywhere were the signs of spring and Joe was desperate to escape the close confines of the ranch and get on with enjoying life.

 

“Go on, Pa,” Hoss urged, siding with his little brother as usual. “As long as he stays with Mitch, he’ll be fine.”

 

“I don’t know so much,” Adam warned. “Whoever killed those boys is still out there somewhere.”

 

“That was months ago,” Joe protested, glaring at his eldest brother. “All the other kids get to do what they want now.”

 

Ben raised his hands in defeat. “All right,” he agreed reluctantly. Joe threw a look of triumph at Adam but it was short lived as Ben continued. “On one condition. Adam rides in to town with you to meet Mitch. He’s got a few errands to do, so he’ll meet you and Mitch after your fishing expedition and you’ll ride back together.”

 

“That’s not fair,” Joe responded angrily. “You don’t need to keep watch on me all the time.”

 

“Take it or leave it,” Ben told him firmly.

 

“All right,” Joe grumbled moodily. “I guess it’s the only way I’m going to get to go.”

 

****

 

 

Adam watched his young brother ride off with his friend, then strolled across to the mercantile. He was surprised to find Jim, Abe’s assistant alone in the shop.

 

“Abe not about?”

 

“Taken a couple of days off,” Jim told him. “Gone to see a friend in Carson City. What can I do for you?”

 

Adam handed over the order, then headed for the bank to take care of some business for his father.

 

The transaction took less time than Adam had anticipated so, with plenty of time on his hands, he headed across to the saloon for a couple of drinks.

 

He just had time to order a beer when Roy Coffee entered through the swinging doors.

 

“Thought I saw you coming in here,” he said. “Haven’t seen you Cartwrights for a while. Everything all right up at the Ponderosa?”

 

“Fine. Been pretty busy round the ranch is all,” he turned to take the beer that the bartender had poured him. “Anything new on the killings?”

 

Roy shook his head. “I never did hear back from that church in Austin where the minister was before coming here.”

 

“Did you say the minister worked in Austin?” asked the bartender, overhearing the conversation.

 

“That’s right,” Roy confirmed. “He was there for three years right out of seminary.”

 

“I worked in Austin a couple of years back,” the bartender told them urgently. “And there were a couple of young boys murdered there. Far as I know they never found the person who did it.”

 

“Why didn’t you tell me this before?” Roy asked in exasperation. Not listening to the man’s flustered explanation that he didn’t think anyone from Austin lived round here, he turned to Adam. “I’ll get over to the telegraph office and send a wire straight away.”

 

Accompanying the sheriff, Adam was surprised to see Mitch leading his horse toward the blacksmiths. “Where’s Joe?” he asked him. “You two were supposed to stay together.”

 

“My horse threw a shoe so I came on back,” Mitch explained. “I told Joe I’d ride out and meet him later,” he saw Adam’s anxious look. “Don’t worry, he’s not on his own,” he explained. “We met Mr Lewis out by the river. He said he’d keep Joe company till I get back.”

 

“Abe?” Adam said, puzzled. “But Jim told me he was in Carson City.”

 

“Damn!” At Roy’s exclamation both Adam and Mitch turned to stare at him. “When I questioned Abe about his whereabouts when the boys were murdered he said he was in Carson City each time,” the sheriff told them. “I didn’t think anything of it. I know he has friends up there.”

 

Cold fear clutched at Adam as realisation dawned that Abe Lewis could be the killer that had evaded them all this time. “Get someone to go out to the Ponderosa and fetch my family,” he told Mitch quickly. “I’m going after them. Come on Roy!”

 

The two men ran for their horses.

 

****

 

 

Joe was enjoying himself. It seemed like forever since he had been away from his father and brothers, and he was relishing the freedom. The spring sunshine was warm on his back as he bent over to bait the hook on his fishing pole.

 

Abe Lewis leaned back against a tree watching the boy. “Shame about Mitch’s horse,”

 

“Means I get a head start,” Joe grinned. “Catch a few before he gets back here.”

 

This one was such a good looking boy, Lewis thought, and so trusting of his old ‘friend’ Abe. It was so easy to get these kids to like you, he mused, a bit of candy, a few kind words. Of course he hadn't really meant to kill any of them, things just got out of hand and the only way he could stop anyone finding out what he had done was to finish them off. He closed his eyes, momentarily remembering Danny Rogers and the way he had screamed. He hadn’t realised Little Joe Cartwright had caught a glimpse of him that day.

 

Returning to Virginia City the following evening, supposedly from Carson City, he had been shocked to find Roy Coffee questioning everyone who owned a chestnut horse. He had been pleased that Roy accepted his alibi without question.

 

He smiled to himself in anticipation, there were two boys here for his amusement, he thought, first there was Joe, and then Mitch would be riding out to join them.

 

“Would you like to fish Mr Lewis?” Joe offered politely. “You can use Mitch’s pole if you want.”

 

“Thanks, Little Joe, but I’m no fisherman. I’ll just watch you,”

 

Joe cast the line into the water. Engrossed in what he was doing he was vaguely aware that Abe had come to stand behind him, but was totally shocked when the little shopkeeper suddenly reached forward and looped his arm around his chest pulling him back towards him.

 

“Don’t struggle Little Joe and I won’t hurt you,” Abe whispered, his mouth close to Joe’s ear. “I just want you to be nice to me.”

 

Repulsed, and very frightened, Joe struggled desperately to get away. He was hardly aware of shouts behind him and a dark clothed figure running his way.

 

****

 

 

Adam urged his horse forward, Roy galloping behind. ‘Please let Joe be all right,’ he prayed silently, picturing the still bodies of Andy, Danny and Tommy and terrified that he would find his little brother already dead.

 

“Down there!” Roy yelled, pointing off towards the river. Adam looked where he indicated and saw two men struggling violently, a young boy on his knees on the bank beside them. Drawing closer Adam recognised the figures as Abe Lewis and the minister.

 

Reining in beside them Adam jumped down from his horse and ran for his brother as Roy, dismounting behind him, drew his gun and headed for Abe.

 

“Joe,” Adam sank to his knees beside the boy. “Joe, are you all right?”

 

Lifting his head Joe looked up at his brother, eyes glistening with tears. “It was horrible, Adam,” his voice quavered slightly as he spoke. “If the minister hadn’t come along...” He shuddered violently and allowed himself to be drawn gently into his brother’s arms.

 

****

 

 

“He’s fine, Pa,” Adam reassured his father as Ben rushed forward to meet them on their return to town. “Bit shocked but otherwise fine.”

 

Not convinced until he had checked for himself, Ben waited as Joe scrambled down from his horse. “Joseph?” he put his hands on the boy’s shoulders, studying his son’s face.

 

“I’m all right,” Joe told him. “But if the minister hadn’t been there I don’t think I’d have been so lucky.”

 

“I’m just thankful I was able to help,” the minister said, walking across to join them. “I often go riding out by the river when I’m in need of inspiration for my sermons. It’s usually a very peaceful place.”

 

“I don’t know how I can ever thank you enough,” Ben told him warmly. “If anything had happened to Joe…” he shivered at the thought.

 

“And just moments before we thought you were the killer,” Adam told him shamefacedly. “Apparently there were some similar killings when you were serving in Austin.”

 

“Yes there were,” the minister smiled grimly. “But that was all cleared up before I came here, they hanged the man who did it.”

 

“Joe!” Hoss thrust through the group of people now surrounding his father and brothers “What happened? I got back to the ranch and one of the hands told me you were in trouble.”

 

“I’m fine,” Joe grinned; enjoying all the attention now the danger was over. “I’ll tell you all about it when we get home.”

 

“I just can’t believe it of Abe Lewis,” Ben said, watching as Roy led the little shopkeeper away. “He always seemed so nice, everyone liked him.”

 

“Especially the kids,” Adam put in quietly. “They thought of him as a friend. When he met up with them they had no reason to be wary of him, they trusted him.”

 

Heading back to the Ponderosa, Ben could only be profoundly grateful that the minister had arrived in time to stop Abe Lewis. The triumph of good over evil, he thought, the Good Lord had surely been watching over Joseph today.

 

 

 

THE END

 

© Kathleen Pitts 1999