THIS STORY IS WRITTEN FOR PLEASURE, NOT PROFIT, AND IS NOT INTENDED TO INFRINGE ON ANY KNOWN COPYRIGHT
JUST A CHANCE
The soft breezes of early summer blew gently across the south pastures of the Ponderosa ranch, making the grasses ripple like gentle waves on the sea, and cooling the sweaty skin of the two shirtless young men working to repair a section of broken fencing.
Winding wire around the fence post he’d just put in, Joe Cartwright looked across at his companion with a grin. “Almost finished.” He said with satisfaction. “And I think we’ve done a pretty good job.”
Returning the grin, Tom Jenner straightened from tamping the earth around the post and reached for his shirt. “We sure have.” He agreed. “And we did it in good time as well.”
Finishing with the wire, and
shrugging into his own shirt, Joe nodded in agreement; smiling with
satisfaction as he thought how pleased his father would be at a job well done.
At sixteen Joe was in his first year of working the Ponderosa full time, and
was enjoying the freedom from school and the feeling of being grown up and
pulling his weight on the family ranch. Repairing fences wasn’t the most
exciting of jobs, and Joe hadn’t been very enthusiastic when his elder brother,
Adam, had allotted him the task that morning, but he had found a good working
companion in Tom Jenner and the day had turned out to be quite enjoyable. Tom
was the same age as Joe, a skinny blonde youth, who had signed on at the
Ponderosa with his father, Jeb, a few weeks before. They were accompanied by
Tom’s younger brother, Jake, and Ben had allotted the three one of the cabins
usually reserved for married couples. The small family came from
“Hey, Tom.” Joe called over to the youth as he picked up the spades they had been using. “When’s your day off?”
“Day after tomorrow.” Tom answered, coming over to take the tools from Joe and stow them in the back of the buckboard. “Why?”
“Mine’s tomorrow.” Joe told him with a disappointed frown. He reached for the canteen that sat on the buckboard’s seat and took a long drink of water, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand as he turned back to Tom. “If I can get my Pa to change my day so it’s the same as yours, wanna come fishing with me?”
“I’d like that.” Tom said, happy to be asked. “But I ain’t ever been fishing before, Joe. I got no fishing pole or anything.”
“You can borrow one from one of my brothers.” Joe told him as he leapt up onto the buckboard and took the reins, waiting for Tom to climb aboard before he set off home. He was already looking forward to a day’s fishing, now all he had to do was persuade his father.
To Joe’s surprise Ben readily agreed to change his day off. Even the expected protest from Adam hadn’t been forthcoming, though his oldest brother did start to say something before being quickly stopped by his father.
“Pa said he thought it was a good idea, us going fishing.” Joe told Tom as the two youths settled down in the sunshine beside the lake. “Said it’d be nice for you to make a friend round here.” He handed over the fishing pole that he’d brought along for Tom to use, and opened a container of fat pink worms that he’d dug that morning from Hop Sing’s garden.
“Here.” He offered, as Tom poked a tentative finger at the wriggling creatures. “I’ll show you how to do it.”
For a while the two sat quietly as Joe threaded a worm on the hook for Tom, before selecting one for himself. Lines cast into the water, the youths sat back to wait for the fish to bite, enjoying the sunshine and the break from work.
“Didn’t you ever go fishing in
Tom shook his head. “He don’t fish.” He said shortly.
“Oh.” Joe looked out over the lake, remembering all the times he had fished here. “I learned when I was just a little kid.” He told Tom reflectively. “Used to come here with Pa and my brothers, and my Mama before she died.”
Tom turned round, sympathy in his blue eyes. “Guess you must miss her.” He said quietly. “I know I miss my Ma.”
“Sometimes.” Joe admitted, his gaze fixed on the still waters of the lake. “Though I was only young when she died, I don’t remember her that well.”
“My Ma died just last year.” Tom said, his voice husky with sorrow. “And I miss her every day.”
Joe nodded understandingly. “At least you’ve got your Pa and brother.” He said. “That must help some.”
“I guess so, though Jake misses Ma something awful.” Tom told him. “He still cries himself to sleep some nights.” He bent forward and adjusted the fishing pole before he spoke again. “Was your Pa upset when your Ma died?”
“Of course.” Joe said, surprised at the question. “He grieved for a long while, and he was kinda distant with me…but my brothers were there to help me get through it.”
“Adam’s your brother isn’t he?” Tom asked, not knowing the Cartwrights very well and unsure of their relationship. “And Hoss?”
“That’s them.” Joe confirmed with a nod. “Later, when my Pa got over Mama’s death a bit he was great. He tried to explain, to help me understand about death and everything. You know, kids at school used to tease me sometimes, ‘cause I had no mother, but Pa, well, he worked real hard to make sure I never felt left out because of it. He’s just the best….” Joe trailed off, a little embarrassed as he saw Tom’s intent gaze on him. “Sorry.” He apologised. “You don’t want to hear all this.”
“It’s all right.” Tom reassured him. “It’s kinda nice that you get on so well with your father. I’ve seen him around, he seems like a good man.”
“He is.” Joe said softly. Leaning back on the grass, he propped himself up on his elbow and looked over at Tom. “Don’t you get on well with your Pa?”
“He’s okay.” Tom said, turning abruptly away and getting to his feet. “You reckon these fish are ever gonna bite?”
“Sure they will.” Joe said with a laugh, recognising the change of subject for what it was. “Bet we’ll catch enough for both our families to have a good supper.”
“How much you gonna bet?” Tom asked with a grin as he settled back down beside Joe. Through the rest of the warm afternoon as the two boys continued to fish, they talked desultorily of many things, but the subject of family wasn’t raised again.
The days break soon forgotten Joe and Tom were back at work the following morning, to the hard toil of ditch digging. The weather had undergone a change, it was a cool, cloudy day, seeming more like autumn than summer, and the boys were eager to get the task finished and head back to the Ponderosa. Joe worked quickly, digging with practised ease, but he soon noticed that Tom seemed to be having some difficulties, wincing from time to time as he bent down or reached for the spade.
“You all right?” Joe asked eventually, as Tom straightened up and gave a little gasp of pain.
“Fine.” The other boy replied shortly, digging his spade deep into the dirt and turning away from Joe. “Let’s just get on with this.”
“Come on, Tom.” Joe said with concern. “You’re in pain, I can see that. What’s up?”
“It’s nothing.” Tom shook his head and looked down at the spade in his hands. “I just fell over, jarred my back a little. I’ll be all right.”
“How d’you do that?” Joe teased, relieved to find that nothing serious ailed his friend. “Trip over those big feet of yours?”
“No.” Tom shot him an angry glare that plainly said he didn’t want to talk about it. “I just fell, all right.”
“Fine.” Joe held up a hand to show he wouldn’t press the subject. “But if it hurts bad come by the house. Our cook, Hop Sing makes a pretty good liniment, it’ll take the ache away.”
“It’s not that bad.” Tom said dismissively. “Probably be better by tomorrow.”
“Well if it isn’t just let me know and I’ll get you some of that liniment.” Joe told him, but Tom had already turned aside and ignored Joe’s offer, setting to work on another part of the ditch.
The two young men worked in silence for a while until Joe looked up to see two figures riding towards them.
“Here comes Adam.” He informed Tom with a smile, stopping what he was doing and leaning on his spade. “And it looks like he’s got your Pa with him.”
Turning to greet his brother, Joe completely missed the look of apprehension that flickered over the other boy’s face as he too stopped digging and watched the horsemen approach.
“Hey, Adam!” Joe called out to his eldest brother as the two riders drew abreast of the partially dug ditch. “Come to check up on me?”
“Not exactly.” Adam leaned forward to inspect the ditch as he spoke. “I just happened to be passing this way and thought I’d see how you were doing.”
Straightening up with a satisfied nod, he turned to the man beside him and smiled. “Looks like they’re making a pretty good job of it, wouldn’t you say, Jeb?”
Not returning the smile, Jeb Jenner gazed down solemnly at his son. “Hope you’re pulling your weight, Tom.” He said gravely. “A good day’s work for a good days pay, like you been taught.”
“Tom’s been working real hard Mr. Jenner.” Joe piped up quickly, his delight at Adam’s approval fading as he saw the hurt look that had appeared in his friend’s eyes. “Probably harder than me.”
“That’s not difficult to believe.” Adam said dryly, though his smile as he turned back to his brother told Joe he was only teasing. “You’d both better get back to it.” He added, casting a quick glance skyward as he spoke and grimacing. “Looks like there might be rain on the way.”
Obediently Tom took up his spade and began to dig, earning him a sombre nod of approval from his father and a muttered. “No slacking, mind.”
“See you at supper.” Joe called to Adam as his brother wheeled his horse about and rode away, followed by Jenner. Adam raised a hand to acknowledge the words and, with a final wave, Joe turned back to the ditch digging. He glanced over at Tom as he worked, wondering whether to say anything about Jeb’s attitude, but the other boy kept his face averted and, as a faint rumble of thunder made itself heard in the distance, Joe dismissed his annoyance at Tom’s father and hurried to get the job finished.
The threatened rain arrived, and settled in for the rest
of the day, just as Tom and Joe finished work. It was still raining heavily the
following morning and, as that meant ditch digging was impossible, Ben decided
to give his youngest son a few rudimentary lessons in the art of bookkeeping.
Joe wasn’t too happy to be cooped up inside, even on a wet Saturday morning,
but with the anticipation of the monthly
saw the three Cartwright brothers arriving in town together, all smartly dressed and looking forward to a convivial evening with their friends and neighbours.
Looking around as they entered the hall where the dance was being held, Joe was pleased to see that Tom was already present, standing with his young brother over by the food table.
“I wouldn’t eat those if I was you.” Joe whispered confidingly to his friend, walking over just as Tom reached out towards a plate of small cakes. “I happen to know that Mrs. Ada Simpson made those, and she’s just about the worst cook in the whole town. Even my brother, Hoss, wouldn’t eat her cooking and he’ll eat most anything.”
“Hey, Joe.” Tom turned to greet his friend with a smile, leaving the cakes on the plate. “Hoped you’d be here.”
“I couldn’t miss a Saturday night dance.” Joe told him, snagging a piece of chicken from the table, and waving his free hand at the crowded room. “It would disappoint all the pretty girls if I wasn’t here.”
“Oh, sure it would.” Tom said disbelievingly, and looked down at the small boy at his side. “Jake, this here’s Joe Cartwright. Joe, meet my brother, Jake.”
“Pleased to know you.” Joe held out his hand to the boy.
“Tom tells me you go to
Jake nodded, not looking up as he solemnly shook hands. He was a skinny child of nine, as blonde as his brother, and small for his age. Joe assumed both boys must take after their mother in looks, Jeb was a tall, powerfully built man with a shock of dark brown hair, totally unlike his sons.
“I was in school there till last year.” Joe told Jake with a grin that held just the tiniest hint of wistfulness. “Miss it a bit, to tell the truth. You get on all right with Miss Jones?”
Once again the boy nodded, not smiling or meeting Joe’s gaze.
“He’s a bit shy.” Tom excused his brother as Joe looked at him quizzically. “Doesn’t like meeting new people.”
“Tom, Jake.” The deep voice behind them made both Jenner boys start and swing round quickly. “It’s time we were going.”
“But the dance has hardly started yet.” Joe protested, as the Jenner family began to walk away. “Surely you can stay a bit longer?”
“Jake is too young to be out late.” Jeb answered, turning round to address Joe, his tone brooking no argument. “He has to be up early in the morning to get his chores done before church.”
“But Tom could stay couldn’t he?” Joe asked, and spotting his eldest brother in the crowd called over to him. “We could take Tom home, couldn’t we, Adam?”
Excusing himself from the young lady he had been talking to, Adam made his way over to join his brother. “We’d be pleased to escort Tom home.” He told Jeb, seeing the pleading look that Joe was sending his way. “We won’t be very late back, and I think he deserves a bit of a treat after working so hard this past week.”
For a moment it looked as though Jeb was going to refuse and insist that Tom left now, but eventually he nodded grudgingly. “Just mind your manners and do as Mr. Cartwright tells you.” He warned Tom sternly before turning to leave. “And remember, no alcohol and keep away from the girls.”
“No drinking and no girls!” Joe exclaimed as soon as Jeb was out of earshot and Adam had rejoined his companion. “Doesn’t know much about enjoying himself, does he?”
“He says alcohol is the devil’s brew.” Tom said gloomily. “And girls are…” He shook his head and blushed as Joe raised an enquiring eyebrow. “Doesn’t matter, at least I get to stay here.”
“Unlike your Pa, I do know how to have a good time.” Joe told him with a wink of his eye and a wicked looking grin. “And don’t worry about the girls, I know you were told to keep away from them but it’d be downright rude to ignore any that came and introduced themselves to you, wouldn’t it?” Laughing at Tom’s reluctant nod of agreement, Joe excused himself, darting quickly across to where his friends Mitch and Johnny were talking with a group of young ladies. It took only a few moments for Joe to persuade one of the girls to do him a favour and go talk to his friend, and it was just minutes later that Tom took the floor to be instructed in the art of dancing by pretty Lynne Kemp.
The rest of the evening seemed to go all too quickly, both Joe and Tom thoroughly enjoying themselves. It was close to eleven by the time the dance finally wound to a close and Joe sought out his brothers.
“Hey there, Little Joe.” Turning from the table where he was helping himself to a final glass of punch from an ornate crystal bowl, Hoss greeted his young brother with a grin. “Have a good time?”
“Sure did.” Joe told him, inspecting the last few inches of alcoholic liquid remaining at the bottom of the punchbowl. “Think I’ll take a drink before we head home.”
Surveying his youngest brother gravely, Hoss decided that he looked sober enough and nodded. “Help yourself.”
Scooping a ladle full of punch from the bowl, Joe filled two glasses and handed one to Tom just as his eldest brother came walking over to join them.
“I’m just going to escort Susan home.” Adam told Hoss. “Meet you three outside in about twenty minutes.” Looking at the two younger boys as he spoke his brow creased in a frown. “I thought your father said no alcohol, Tom?”
“Aw, Adam.” Joe complained, rapidly draining his own glass before his older brother could object to that. “One drink won’t hurt him.”
“It’s all right, Joe.” Tom put in quickly. “I had a sip and I don’t think much of it anyway. Here, you take it.”
He held out the glass to Joe just as Hoss reached over for one of the remaining cakes on the table and, in doing so, inadvertently jostled the boy’s arm, spilling the drink.
“Sorry.” Hoss apologised immediately, staring in dismay at the rivulets of punch running down Tom’s jacket. “It was an accident.”
“Of course it was.” Adam snatched up a napkin and handed it to Tom. “It’s quite light coloured.” He reassured the boy. “I don’t think it will stain too badly.” He cast a glance across the room to where Susan was waiting. “I’d better go.”
“It’s not too bad.” Joe said, examining the mark on Tom’s jacket as Adam walked away. “And it’ll be all dried out by the time we get home.”
“What time is it, anyway?” Tom asked, scrubbing hard at the spilt punch, a worried frown creasing his brow.
“Just about eleven.” Hoss told him around a mouthful of cake. “Bit later than we intended leaving, but it sure was a good night wasn’t it?”
Joe nodded in agreement, stopping as he turned to Tom. The other boy was standing quite still, his face drained of colour.
“What is it?” Joe asked in concern. “You feeling ill, Tom?”
“It’s going to be after when we get home.” Tom’s voice was a strained whisper. “And I smell of alcohol. My Pa’s gonna to be so mad.”
“Is that all?” Joe laughed. “Don’t worry about it, we can explain to him what happened.”
“No!” Tom cried out, then lowered his voice at Joe’s startled look. “No, I’ll explain. I’m sure you’re right, it’ll be okay.”
“Sure it will.” Joe assured him, exchanging a puzzled glance with Hoss as they all headed out to meet Adam, not sure why Tom was so worried about a spilt drink and a late arrival home.
The sun shone brightly through the coloured glass of the church windows, as Joe sat in the pew with his family the following morning, dust motes dancing in its multihued beams.
The late night was catching up with the youngest Cartwright, and the warmth of the morning combined with a long and tedious sermon delivered in Reverend Jones deep monotone didn’t help. Several times he found his eyelids drooping and had to fight to stay awake, sitting up straighter and trying hard to concentrate on what the Reverend was saying.
Once or twice Joe glanced across the aisle to where Tom sat between his father and brother, but his friend kept his gaze firmly fixed on the front of the church and, with a stifled sigh, Joe gave up trying to attract his attention.
At long last, or so it seemed to Joe, the final words were spoken, the last hymn sung and the congregation were dismissed to file out into the summer sunshine.
Ben smiled down at his son, pleased that the boy seemed to have made a friend in Tom Jenner. He knew that Joe had been missing the company of his schoolmates these last few months. “Of course it would.” He said with a nod of approval. “I think Hop Sing was making stew and I’m sure that will stretch to an extra person.”
Seeing his friend approach, Tom smiled at him, holding a finger to his lips. Nodding his understanding Joe stood patiently beside Tom and Jake as Jeb finished his conversation.
“Mr. Jenner.” Joe began, when the Reverend eventually shook hands with Jeb and walked away. “I was just wondering if it would be all right for Tom to have lunch at the Ponderosa today?”
“I’m afraid that’s out of the question.” Jeb replied coolly, barely glancing at Joe. “Tom is restricted to the house for the rest of the day.”
“Restricted?” Joe looked at Tom quizzically and the boy gave a slight shrug of his shoulders. “Why?”
“How I choose to punish my son is no concern of yours.” Jeb told him, his tone tinged with annoyance. “But, as you are partly to blame for his behaviour, I think you probably know the reason.”
“Because of what happened at the dance?” Joe asked incredulously, and saw Jeb’s small nod of confirmation. “But that’s not fair!”
“Tom was told not to partake of alcohol.” Jeb said, his voice rising angrily. “But he came home reeking of it.”
“But he didn’t drink any.” Joe protested, his temper starting to flare. “It just got spilt on him, didn’t he tell you that?”
“A convenient excuse.” Jeb brushed aside the explanation. “Then there’s how late he got home.”
“But you knew where he was, who he was with.”
“I trusted him to obey me, and you and your brother to make sure he did. It seems my trust was misplaced.”
“We just got delayed.” Joe was practically shouting now and, with a worried frown, Ben started towards his son, Adam and Hoss close behind.
“Tell him.” Joe saw his brothers approaching with relief. “Tell Tom’s father that he never took a drink, and that it was our fault he was late. He won’t believe me.”
“It’s true, Jeb.” Adam assured the man, as Ben laid a soothing hand on Joe’s shoulder. “I had some…er…business to take care of and that made us late leaving the dance.”
“And it was me spilled the drink down Tom’s front.” Hoss put in apologetically. “It was just an accident.”
“We did offer to see Tom to the door and explain.” Adam said softly, looking over at Tom who was staring at the ground, his face a picture of misery. “But he said he’d be all right.”
“We’re real sorry if it’s caused any trouble.” Hoss added with a conciliatory smile. “And after he’d had such a good time, dancing with all the girls and…” He trailed off at the enraged look that had appeared on Jeb’s face.
“Girls!” Tom’s father hissed, turning furiously on his oldest son. “I told you to keep away from girls!”
“I see.” Jeb turned back to Joe, who, open mouthed in surprise at Tom’s words, flinched at the man’s angry glare.
“Now, Jeb.” Adam interrupted, attempting to calm the man. “It was a dance after all, and they were all respectable girls.”
“I know Tom has to work with Joe.” Jeb said, his voice controlled now, though still angry. “But apart from that I don’t want to see them together, is that understood?”
“Jeb.” Ben put in, his hand squeezing Joe’s shoulder warningly as his youngest son opened his mouth to speak. “Don’t you think you’re being a little harsh? Tom is sixteen after all, not a child.”
Looking over at his employer, Jeb shook his head. “You may be my boss, Mr. Cartwright.” He said evenly. “But that doesn’t give you the right to interfere with how I raise my boys.”
“Of course not.” Ben agreed quickly. “But….”
“I don’t want to talk about it anymore.” Jeb interrupted, turning to go, his hand still grasping Tom’s arm firmly. “As I said, Tom is restricted to the house for the rest of today, and for the next few Sundays.”
“Boy, he sure is strict.” Hoss exclaimed as Jeb marched Tom away, Jake trailing silently behind. “It’s my guess that boy won’t be sitting comfortable for a few days.”
“He wouldn’t, would he?” Joe exclaimed in horror, looking up at his father and brothers. “I mean, Tom’s my age, too old for a tanning.”
“He did disobey his father.” Ben said quietly, watching the Jenner’s disappear into the distance. “Jeb might feel that’s a good enough reason.”
“Don’t worry, Little Joe.” Hoss said with a smile, seeing the apprehensive expression on Joe’s face. “Jeb’s all right. He loves them boys of his, they’re all he ever talks about when we’re out on the range together. Besides, you’ve had enough tannings in your time, don’t hurt for long.”
Lips twisting in a wry smile, Joe had to agree. He had indeed suffered a few tannings over the years and it had never done him any harm. Though he was glad that his father considered him well past the age of such a punishment now.
Joe had been all for defying Jeb’s order to stay away from Tom, and it had taken Ben some time to persuade him that it might be best to comply with the man, at least for now, and that it would be wisest to let Jeb calm down before attempting to make him change his mind.
Work however was a different matter, and although Adam assigned Joe and Tom different tasks for a couple of days, agreeing with Ben that it was the best thing to do in the circumstances, by Wednesday he had the two boys together again, and clearing ditches.
“What was the big idea telling your Pa it was my fault about the girls?” Joe asked his friend as the two youths left their horses tethered in the shade, shouldered their spades and trudged across the meadow to begin work. “And what’s so bad about dancing with girls anyway? That’s what you’re meant to do at a dance.”
“Pa’s just a bit funny about things like that.” Tom told him, not explaining any further. “But I’m sorry I said it was your fault, reckoned perhaps Pa might not mind so much if he thought you were to blame.”
“He give you a hard time about it?” Joe looked at the other boy sympathetically. “He sure seemed angry.”
Tom shrugged, pausing at the edge of the ditch and staring down at the tangle of weeds that clogged it. “Looks like we’ve got our work cut out for us here.”
Joe nodded in agreement, tossing his spade into the ditch and jumping down beside it. “Hot day for digging as well.”
“Sure is.” Tom glanced up at the sky above him, not a cloud marring the bright blue. “Reckon we’ve got just about the worst job on the ranch today.”
“That’s ‘cause we’re the youngest.” Joe observed with a sigh as Tom joined him in the ditch and they set to work. “Pa says you gotta learn from the bottom up, and I guess that’s true, but I’d sure like to be out checking stock or breaking horses at the corral instead.”
By lunchtime the ditch was clear, and the two hot and sticky boys decided it was time for a well-earned rest before heading back to the ranch. Fetching the canteens from the horses, Joe threw Tom’s over to him, before settling down on the grass and taking a drink. Joining him, Tom swallowed a deep draught of water, then soaked his bandanna and wiped his flushed, sweaty face. “Boy, is it ever hot.” He said with a tired sigh. “I feel like I’m gonna melt clean away.”
“Yeh.” Joe agreed, then flashed a sudden grin as an idea occurred to him. “But I know how we could cool off.”
“How?” Tom asked warily, seeing the crafty look that had appeared on his friend’s face. “What have you got in mind?”
“The lake’s not far.” Joe explained. “And I bet Adam wasn’t expecting us to finish work just yet. He won’t know if we go take a quick swim.”
“A swim!” Alarm edged Tom’s voice. “We couldn’t do that.”
“Sure we could.” Joe said with a laugh, getting to his feet. “It’ll be fun.”
“Suppose your brother finds out?” Tom asked worriedly, then swallowed hard as another thought struck him. “Suppose my Pa finds out?”
“They won’t.” Joe assured him in a wheedling tone. “And you said yourself how hot it is. A cool dip is just what we need.”
Tom dropped his eyes to the ground, fingers plucking nervously at a strand of grass. “But I…er…can’t swim.”
“Oh.” Joe’s disappointment at this news only lasted a few seconds. “Then you can just wade in and cool off.” He declared. “You don’t actually need to swim.”
“Look, you go in if you like.” Tom got reluctantly to his feet and followed Joe toward the horses. “I’ll just watch.”
“You scared of showing off that skinny body of yours?” Joe teased, tying his spade securely to his horse’s saddle. “Is that the problem?”
“No it ain’t!” Tom denied indignantly. “I just don’t wanna go in, that’s all.”
“Must be scared of the water then.” Joe mocked, grinning widely. “Bet that’s it.”
“I ain’t scared!” Annoyed, Tom shoved Joe on the shoulder. “You take that back.”
With a laugh, Joe returned the shove, pushing Tom in the stomach. He sobered immediately as the other boy recoiled with a cry of pain. “What is it?” Joe asked in alarm, worried that he’d somehow hurt his friend. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to….”
“You didn’t.” Tom said shortly, recovering his composure. “I got in a bit of a fight with my brother, just playing around, you know how it is. Guess I’m still a bit bruised.”
“A bit bruised?” Joe asked disbelievingly. “Shouldn’t hurt that much, let me see....” Before Tom could stop him he had pulled the boy’s shirt aside, his voice trailing off as he stared in horror at Tom’s bared torso. The youth’s stomach was a mass of bruises, dark purple fading to yellow and grey. “My God.” Joe whispered at last, his voice shaking slightly. “Who did that to you?”
“I told you.” Tom said angrily, jerking away from Joe and tucking his shirt securely into his pants. “It was just a bit of rough housing with Jake.”
“Aw, c’mon.” Joe protested. “Jake’s nine years old, and a skinny little thing at that, he couldn’t have done that much damage. Who was it, Tom? You have a run in with one of the other hands, is that it?”
“Just leave it, Joe.” Tom pleaded softly. “Please, just forget about it.”
“Forget about it!” Joe exclaimed, angry at whoever had done this to Tom. “I’ll speak to my Pa, if someone’s been hurting you he’ll deal with it.”
“No!” Tom practically shouted the word, his voice echoing through the still heat of the afternoon. “I said leave it.” Turning on his heel he marched rapidly to his horse, mounted up and galloped away, leaving Joe staring after him in concern and wondering who could have inflicted such vicious damage on his friend.
Coming into the barn while Joe was stabling Cochise that evening, Ben watched his son for a while before asking idly. “Did you and Tom have some kind of argument today? Adam said Tom rode in well before you did.”
“We didn’t argue.” Joe hung his saddle over the edge of the stall before turning his attention to the horse’s bridle. “Well, not exactly.”
“Oh.” The single word wasn’t exactly a question, but there was a hint of enquiry in the way Ben said it, and Joe paused for a moment, debating whether to tell his father what had happened.
“So long as everything’s all right.” Ben said, as his son remained silent. “I’ll see you inside, supper will be ready soon.”
“Tom’s in trouble.” Joe’s quiet words halted Ben as he turned to go. “He told me not to say anything, but I think someone ought to know.”
“I see.” Ben said, and then waited quietly, leaning against Cochise’s stall, as his son collected his thoughts before relating the details.
“Tom’s been beaten.” Joe said eventually. “His stomach is a mass of bruises.”
“Did he say who did it?”
“He said it was Jake. Said they were fighting, but I don’t believe it.”
“Why not?” Ben asked gently. “Brothers do fight sometimes, as you well know.”
Joe nodded in agreement. “Not like this though.” He said insistently, turning to meet Ben’s concerned gaze. “These are serious bruises, Pa, and they aren’t anything a skinny little nine year old could inflict on someone.”
“Maybe Tom just bruises easily.” Ben suggested. “Some people do.”
“Nope.” Joe shook his head vehemently. “He’s been beaten. If you saw the bruises you wouldn’t doubt it.”
“So if it wasn’t Jake, who do you think it was?”
“I reckon he must have had a run in with one of the other hands.”
“What makes you think that?” Ben asked, a little surprised at Joe’s assertion. “Has he mentioned any trouble with anyone?”
“No.” Joe said with a frown. “But who else could it be? You know that some of the hands are a bit hard on new kids.”
Ben nodded, he was aware that the youngsters sometimes bore the brunt of a lot of teasing from the older, more experienced, men, but he’d never heard of any outright violence. It was possible, of course, but Ben was inclined to suspect that the injuries came from a source much closer to Tom.
“They’re not hard on me of course.” Joe added with a quick grin. “They don’t mess around with the boss’ son. Not that I expect any favours.” He added quickly, seeing Ben’s raised eyebrows. “I mean I never point out that I’m a Cartwright, but they all know.”
“I suppose they do.” Ben acknowledged with a dry laugh. “So you think one of the men may have got a bit rough with Tom?”
“Yeh. But I don’t know what to do to help him.”
“I don’t see that you can do anything if Tom won’t say who did it.” Ben counselled quietly. “If you like I could have a word, see if he’ll confide in me.”
“I don’t think so.” Joe said uncertainly. “He got pretty angry when I mentioned telling you about it.”
“Then how about I ask Adam if he’s aware of anything? He knows most of the hands pretty well, he might have heard if any of them have a problem with Tom.”
“That’s true.” Joe agreed with a nod, giving Cochise a final pat and leaving the stall.
“And perhaps I could ask Jeb a few discreet questions.” Ben continued, putting an arm around his son’s shoulders as they left the barn and headed for the house. “He may know something.”
“I shouldn’t have thought so.” Joe grimaced wryly as he thought of the last time he’d seen Jeb. “He and Tom don’t seem to get along too well.”
“Won’t hurt to ask.” Ben said, and Joe shrugged, just happy to turn the problem over to his father for now, and not to have to face the disquieting suspicion that had begun to niggle at the back of his mind.
“You’ll be riding fence with Smithy today, Joe.” Adam announced as he came in from the barn and joined his family at breakfast the following morning. “Seems Tom’s not well so he won’t be working today.”
“Not well?” Joe looked up in alarm. “What’s wrong with him?”
“A stomach upset apparently.” Adam told him, sitting down and helping himself to eggs and ham from the serving dishes in the middle of the table. “Young Jake just came over and told me.”
“Did he say if Jeb had sent for the doctor?” Ben asked, a worried expression on his face.
“No, just said Tom was sick and that they reckoned it was something he ate.” Adam said with a shrug, picking up his fork and turning his attention to his food.
The meal over, Ben waited until Hoss and Joe had gone out to saddle their horses before turning to his oldest son. “How did Jake seem when he told you about Tom this morning?” He asked quietly. “Did he appear upset at all?”
“No.” Adam looked at his father curiously. “Why? Is something wrong?”
“Joe told me that Tom had been beaten up.” Ben informed him gravely. “And quite badly. Your brother thinks that the boy may have had a run in with one of the hands but I’m not so sure.”
“I don’t think one of the hands would do anything like that.” Adam said thoughtfully, thinking of the men he worked alongside. “And I’ve certainly seen no sign of any animosity towards the boy.”
“I didn’t think so.” Ben rubbed a hand across his forehead and shook his head slightly. “I had a word with Jeb last night.”
“Jeb!” Adam exclaimed. “You surely don’t think he’s to blame? I mean, I know it happens, but I wouldn’t have suspected…”
“Who else could it be?” Ben asked softly. “Tom told Joe it happened fighting with Jake but I don’t believe that any more than he does.”
“But, Jeb?” Adam protested again. “I know he’s a bit harsh with the boys, there’s no denying that, but you should hear him talk about them, he’s really proud of them both.”
“He certainly seemed to be when I talked to him.” Ben agreed. “But it comes back to who else could have done it. I tried to be as discreet as possible in the questions I asked of course, but…Tom’s illness this morning is worrying.”
“You want me to check on the boy?” Adam asked, pushing his empty coffee cup aside and getting to his feet. “I could go over before I start work.”
“Better not.” Ben shook his head. “If Jeb is hitting Tom it could get worse if we interfere any more than we already have.”
“True.” Adam agreed. “But should we just stand by and do nothing?”
“I don’t know.” Ben said grimly. “Jeb’s already pointed out that I have no say in how he raises his sons. I suppose I could dismiss him, but what good would that do?”
“You might try having a word with Roy Coffee.” Adam suggested. “See where the law stands in a situation like this.”
“Might be an idea.” Ben nodded in agreement. “That is, of
course, if my suspicions are even correct. Perhaps I’ll ride in to
“Well, I have to get to work.” Adam told him as Hop Sing came bustling in from the kitchen and began to clear the table. “I’ll see you later.”
“Right.” Ben stood up as Adam headed for the credenza to get his gunbelt. “Don’t say anything to Joe will you?” He added as his eldest son grabbed his hat from the rack and opened the door. “I’d rather he didn’t know that I suspect Tom’s father.”
“I won’t say anything.” Adam promised, pausing in the doorway. “Not until we know for sure anyway.”
The taciturn middle-aged ranch hand known as Smithy wasn’t the most pleasant of companions and the day went very slowly for Joe. Riding past the corral late that afternoon, glad that work was finished for the day, he spotted Tom’s father helping out with the horsebreaking. It looked as though Jeb would be occupied for some while, and Joe decided that this might be a good time to call on Tom and see if he was feeling better. The little cabin that the Jenners occupied was quite close to the ranch house, and it wasn’t long before Joe was dismounting from Cochise and heading for the door.
“Hey.” Joe greeted Jake as the boy cracked the door in response to his knock. “I just came to see Tom.”
“He’s not v-very w-well.” Jake stammered, blue eyes staring owlishly up at Joe. “He’s s-sick.”
“Yeh, I know.” Joe glanced beyond the boy into the dark interior of the house. “I thought I’d just call in for a few minutes, see how he is.”
“He’s all right.” Jake told him shortly, a hint of panic edging his voice. “P-please go away.”
“I just want to see him for a moment.” Joe said, inching a little closer to the door. “I won’t stay long, I promise.”
“Let him in, Jakey.” Came Tom’s resigned voice from behind the youngster, and with a sigh, Jake moved slowly aside.
The cabin was dim, shades drawn even at this hour, and Joe blinked as he entered, his eyes taking a moment to grow accustomed to the semi-darkness. As his vision adjusted he couldn’t hold back the gasp that rose to his lips when he saw Tom’s face. The boy had a split lip and numerous small bruises, but it was the black eye standing out purple and red against his pale skin that horrified Joe.
“I walked into a door.” Tom mumbled by way of explanation as he saw his friend’s expression.
“You don’t expect me to believe that, do you?” Joe said with derision. “Somebody did that to you, Tom, and I want to know who.”
“I told you, I did it.” Tom’s eyes slid away from his friend as he spoke. “Just clumsy, is all.”
“Who was it?” Joe persisted, determined to find out who was hurting Tom. “Tell me and I’ll get my Pa to…”
“No!” Jake’s shrill voice from behind them startled both boys. “You can’t tell Mr. Cartwright. That’s the reason…”
“Shut up, Jake!” Tom ordered quickly and, with a scared look at Joe, the boy fell silent.
“My Pa?” Joe questioned, puzzled. “How is my Pa the reason for this?”
“Because he spoke to my father.”
Tom murmured miserably. “You really want to know, Joe? You really want to know
the truth? It was my father that did this to me. My
For a long moment Joe said nothing, just stared at the other boy in stunned silence. He couldn’t believe that Jeb had done this to his own son, and yet…Joe finally acknowledged the feeling of disquiet that had been haunting him since discovering Tom’s injuries. He had suspected Jeb, but hadn’t been willing to admit it, not even to himself. “Why?” He whispered at last. “Why did he… why does he… do it?”
“He doesn’t need much of a reason.” Tom said with a bitter little laugh. “Disobeying him, talking about family business with outsiders, things like that.”
“How long?” Joe asked numbly, mind whirling at the horror of Tom’s situation. “I mean, has he always…?”
“Not when Ma was alive.” Tom walked stiffly over to Jake. “He had her for a punchbag then.”
“Your mother?” The words came out in a strangled gasp as Joe began to realise what life was like for the Jenner boys.
Tom nodded, his bruised face a mask of despair. “Ma could never do anything right where he was concerned. Now she’s gone he takes it out on me.”
“Why do you stay?” Joe’s dismay and concern was fast turning to anger. “You’re sixteen, you could get away from him, get a job somewhere, look after yourself.”
“And then what?” Tom asked hollowly, putting his hands on his brother’s shoulders and looking down at the younger boy with affection. “If I’m not here who do you think would suffer?”
Looking at Tom standing protectively over his brother, Joe understood. His friend was living this nightmare in order to protect Jake. “You could both leave.” He said softly. “I could help.”
“They’d find us, Joe.” Tom’s tone was resigned. “Jake’s only a kid, they’d bring him back to Pa.” He laughed again, a chilling despairing sound. “See, in his own strange way our father loves us. He’s convinced that he’s doing the best he can for us, teaching us right from wrong. So, sometimes he goes a little far, he’s always sorry, says it will never happen again.” The boy’s voice broke on a sob as his hands tightened convulsively on Jake’s shoulders. “But it always does, Joe, it always does.”
Knocking softly on Joe’s bedroom door Ben waited until he heard the mumbled “Come in.” before entering, finding his son laid out on top of the bedcovers, still fully dressed, his hands folded beneath his head.
“I thought you said you wanted an early night.” Ben observed mildly, pushing the door shut behind him. “Not tired after all?”
“I just wanted to be alone to think.” Swinging his legs to the floor, Joe stood up. “But I’m glad you came in, Pa. There’s something I want to tell you.”
“About Tom?” Ben seated himself on the end of Joe’s bed and scrutinised his son. “I noticed you didn’t have much to say at supper, guessed what was bothering you.”
“I went to see Tom.” Joe told him. “This afternoon. He told me who it is that’s been hitting him.”
“Jeb.” Ben said quietly, to Joe’s obvious surprise.
“I guessed.” Ben patted the bed beside him. “Sit down, Joe. Tell me what Tom said.”
“Jeb beats him.” Joe confided, sitting down beside his father. “And he used to beat Tom’s mother.”
“And Jake?” Ben asked gravely.
Joe shook his head. “That’s why Tom stays. He thinks if he left his father might turn on Jake.” Raising troubled eyes, he looked at Ben. “How could Jeb do that, Pa? How could he beat Tom like that?”
“I suppose that Jeb feels it’s justified.” Ben said, shaking his head sadly. “I imagine he would say that Tom needs the discipline.”
“Discipline!” Joe exclaimed, anger flaring. “That’s not discipline.”
“So, what do you consider discipline to be, Joseph?” Ben asked, laying a soothing hand on his son’s thigh. “Don’t you think a man has a right to punish his son if he does wrong?”
“Not like that.” Pushing his father’s hand aside Joe stood up again and began to pace agitatedly. “Nobody should be allowed to do that. Tom was beaten black and blue and it isn’t as though he did anything that bad.” Running his hands through his hair, Joe forced himself to stand still for a moment, taking a deep breath and trying to bring his temper under control before he turned to face Ben. “You punished me when I did wrong.” He said quietly. “I had plenty of tannings over the years and sure, they hurt, but…”
“But what?” Ben questioned kindly as Joe fell silent.
“What Jeb does to Tom is different.” Joe frowned, biting his lip as he gathered his thoughts. “I knew if I did wrong I’d get punished.” He said softly. “And I knew what you considered wrong. Any punishment I kind of brought on myself. But Tom…” He grimaced. “Jeb punishes him for no good reason and he hurts him, Pa, really hurts him. Not a tanning that makes it a bit sore to sit for a day or two but a beating that leaves him in pain for weeks.”
“It’s really that bad?” Ben asked quietly.
Joe nodded. “I saw his belly.” He said. “And now his face, a black eye, a split lip. And he’s scared, terrified of his father.” Looking down at his own father, Joe smiled softly. “I can’t imagine ever being terrified of you.”
“I saw Sheriff Coffee today.” Ben said and sighed as he saw the gleam of hope on Joe’s face that was swiftly extinguished by his next words. “He said he can’t do anything.”
“Why not?” Joe demanded angrily. “Why can’t he stop Jeb?”
“A father has a right to bring up his son how he sees fit.” Ben said. “I’m sorry, Joe, but that’s the way the law sees it. Jeb has a right to discipline his son, just as he had a right to discipline his wife.”
“It’s not fair.” Joe declared quietly, sitting down on the bed again, a defeated expression on his face. “If Jeb beat someone else like that, Sheriff Coffee would throw him in jail but because it’s his own son he can get away with it.”
“I agree.” Ben told him. “It isn’t right, but that’s the way it is, Joe. I’m afraid you have to face it, you can’t help Tom. All you can hope is that the boy decides to leave home.”
“He’d never do that.” Joe said with a sigh. “He’d never leave Jake.”
“I’m sorry, Joe.” Ben put a comforting arm around his downhearted son and drew him close. “I could try speaking to Jeb if you like, warn him.”
Joe shook his head, knowing that would just cause more trouble. But an idea was beginning to take shape in his mind, an idea that just might work.
Friday brought Joe the opportunity he sought to put his plan into action. At breakfast Adam mentioned that he’d sent Smithy and Jeb out to the fenceline in the south pasture, Jeb was going to make a start on mending fences while Smithy took the buckboard into Virginia City to pick up some supplies and some more fence wire. Adam had business in town and would meet Smithy there and go with him to deliver the wire to Jeb.
“Checking up on him?” Ben remarked mildly, when he heard Adam’s plans.
“No, that’s not the reason.” Leaving the table, Adam buckled on his gunbelt and picked up his hat. “I’ve had to send Billy and Dave to round up some strays so Jeb’s on his own. Smithy and I are going to have to give him some help if the job’s going to be finished today.”
“Will you be back for supper?” Ben asked as Adam opened the door to leave. “Or shall I ask Hop Sing to save you something.”
“I should be back.” Adam told him, pausing in the doorway. “I plan on getting up to the south pasture around , and with the three of us working together we should be finished and on the way home by four.”
Mounting up on Cochise some twenty minutes later, Joe was wishing that he could forget all about his plan and let his father deal with Jeb. Tension was knotting his stomach and he felt slightly sick at the thought of what lay ahead. For a moment he considered calling it off, and riding out to join Hoss at the timber camp, which was where he was supposed to be going. But knowing that Ben couldn’t help Tom, and recalling the black eye and bruises that the boy still bore, gave Joe even more determination to go through with it. Inside his jacket he could feel the weight of the pocket watch he had taken from his father’s bedroom, and cast a quick glance back at his home, hoping that Ben would forgive him for borrowing it without asking. Then, straightening his back and summoning his courage, he headed out towards the place where Jeb was mending fences.
For his plan to work Joe needed a witness to what he was about to do, and he intended that to be Adam, but everything depended upon his brother arriving at the fence line at the time he had said, and until then he needed to keep out of sight.
Approaching the meadow where Jeb was working, Joe reined in his horse and slipped from the saddle. Leaving Cochise tethered back beyond the ridgeline of the hill that sheltered the meadow, Joe began to move cautiously down the slope, keeping under cover, until he spotted Jeb in the distance, hard at work digging post holes. Settling down against a rock from where he could keep watch, he began his wait.
The warmth of the sunshine on his body was soporific and, despite the churning in his gut, Joe found himself drifting into sleep, waking only when the shade of the rock crept over him as the sun moved through the sky. A quick glance round at Jeb showed that the man had stopped work and was stretched out on the grass, hat over his eyes, probably awaiting the wire that Smithy was bringing. Pulling his father’s watch from his pocket, Joe found that it was already close to , Adam should be arriving at any moment, and if his plan was to work he needed to act now.
Summoning up his courage, for he knew what lay ahead was likely to be very painful, Joe retrieved Cochise and, mounting up, started down towards Jeb.
Hearing the rider coming, Jenner lazily pushed his hat back to watch the horse approach, scrambling to his feet as he realised who it was.
“What are you doing out here, boy?” He asked sharply as Joe dismounted a few feet away from him, and there was no mistaking the dislike in the words.
“I came to talk to you about Tom.” To Joe’s annoyance his voice quivered a little when he spoke, his mouth and throat dry with apprehension. “To tell you to leave him alone.”
“How I treat Tom is no business of yours.” Jeb informed him icily. “Nor of your interfering father and brothers. He’s my son and I’ll deal with him how I see fit.”
“And that includes beating him?” Anger was fast overcoming Joe’s fear. “What kind of man are you, beating on your own son like that?”
A dangerous glint of fury flashed in Jeb’s eyes, and Joe took an involuntary step backwards as the man strode towards him, stopping just inches away.
“Get out of here, boy.” Jeb loomed menacingly over Joe, jabbing his finger at the youth’s chest as he spoke. “Before I give you the hiding you so richly deserve.”
“Go on then.” Joe taunted, though inwardly he was quaking with trepidation. “You haven’t got the guts to touch me.”
“You…” Jeb drew back his fist and let fly, the heavy blow catching Joe on the side of the head and almost knocking the smaller, lighter youngster over.
What happened next was just about the hardest thing Joe had ever done, every fibre of him cried out to hit back, to put up a fight as Jeb hit him again and again. The pain was blinding as the man’s powerful fists caught him in the stomach and ribs. A violent uppercut to Joe’s chin finally floored the youth and Jeb followed him down, aiming his blows now at Joe’s head. When, at last, the young man lay unconscious, bloody and beaten beneath him, Jeb finally seemed to come to his senses. Standing up shakily he looked down at his victim, with something akin to fear in his expression. He knew that the Cartwrights would never let him get away with this. He had to leave the Ponderosa, and quickly. Grabbing Cochise’s reins he leapt into the saddle and spurred the horse away, never once looking back at the battered body by the fence line.
Urging the horses on, Adam chafed at the slowness of the buckboard, and silently cursed Deputy Clem Foster for keeping him talking in town. He was at least half an hour later than he had intended arriving to meet Jeb, and he’d have to work quickly to make it home in time for supper. Of course it would have been quicker if he’d ridden Sport, but there was little point arriving before the buckboard with its load of fence posts and wire, so he’d tied the big horse to the back of the vehicle. He cast a sideways glance at Smithy, dozing in the seat beside him and grimaced, it hadn’t helped matters that he’d had to practically drag the ranch hand from the saloon before he could set off.
“Hey, Smithy!” He dug the older man sharply in the ribs. “We’re almost there.”
Waking with a start, Smithy peered blearily at his employer, and then at the pastureland around them. “Don’t see Jeb.” He said thickly.
“I don’t either.” Adam squinted off to the fence line where he had expected to find Jenner working. “Though I can see something on the ground over there.”
More alert now, Smithy stared at the object and gave a gasp as he realised what it was. “It’s a man.” He said urgently. “Must be Jeb, and he’s in trouble!”
Flicking the reins, Adam drove the horses as fast as he could, his eyes widening and colour draining from his face as he at last pulled the buckboard to a halt and saw that the body on the ground wasn’t Jeb at all.
“Joe!” Leaping from the vehicle, Adam quickly reached his fallen brother, dropping to his knees beside the youth.
“Someone’s worked him over real good.” Smithy observed, coming over to join Adam at Joe’s side. “Just look at the state of his face.”
“Jeb.” Adam said shortly. “Must have been Jeb.”
“Why would Jeb hurt young Joe?” Smithy asked, perplexed. “And where is he anyway?”
Adam didn’t answer, his attention on his brother. “Joe.” He said softly, leaning over the youth’s recumbent form. “Joe, can you hear me?” The question elicited no response and Adam looked up at Smithy worriedly. “Fetch some water.” He instructed.
As Smithy went to fetch a canteen from the buckboard Joe stirred slightly and groaned.
“Joe.” Adam said again, taking the canteen from Smithy as he came back and splashing a little water on his brother’s swollen face. “Joe, it’s Adam.”
Turning his head away from the cold liquid, Joe groaned again then blinked dazedly. “Adam?” He mumbled, a note of alarm entering his voice as he tried to focus. “Where’s Jeb?”
“He’s gone.” Adam reassured him. “It’s just me and Smithy. We’ll get you home.”
“No, you don’t understand.” Joe said agitatedly, trying to get up. “You have to get Jeb, you have to stop him.”
“Oh, I’ll get him all right.” Adam assured him, his eyes hard, though his hands, as he assisted his brother to his feet, were gentle. “He might hide behind the law when it comes to dealing with his son, but there’s no way he’s going to get away with this.”
Instructing Smithy to get the horse blanket from beneath Sport’s saddle, Adam wrapped it around his brother, before lifting Joe up into the buckboard and trying to make him as comfortable as he could for the ride back to the Ponderosa.
“I’ll be all right.” Joe whispered weakly as Adam settled himself beside him. “Just go and get Jeb.”
“I’m taking you home.” Adam told him firmly. “I’ll see to Jeb later.”
“But he might go after Tom.” Joe said worriedly, peering up at Adam from eyes partially closed by swelling, the skin around them beginning to show the discolouration of bruised tissue “You’ve gotta stop him, Adam, you just gotta.”
“I will.” Adam assured him softly. “But not until you’re safe at home.”
The buckboard lurched forward at that moment, Smithy taking up the reins and starting for the ranch house, and Joe bit down hard on his already swollen lip, trying to hold back a moan of agony.
“What happened anyway?” Adam asked gently, hoping to distract him from the pain. “Why did Jeb do this to you?”
The question went unanswered; Joe had lapsed back into unconsciousness.
“Hurry up.” Adam yelled up to Smithy, and as the buckboard gathered speed, he pulled his brother into his arms, bracing himself as best as he could to try and stop the bouncing of the vehicle from jostling Joe too much and perhaps adding to the youth’s injuries.
It seemed a very long journey back to the house and Adam was never more relieved to arrive in the yard of the Ponderosa. Almost before the buckboard had come to a halt he had picked Joe up and was awkwardly clambering to the ground, yelling back at Smithy to get a horse and ride for Doctor Martin.
As Adam approached the house, Joe a dead weight in his arms, the door opened and Ben came out, fear clouding his eyes as he saw his sons.
Standing aside to let Adam carry Joe into the house and over to the settee, Ben followed him inside. “What happened?” He asked as Adam carefully lay his burden down. “He was meant to be up at the timber camp with Hoss.”
“All I know is that I found him out at the fenceline.” Adam told him, as Ben knelt beside the settee and gently examined Joe’s injuries. “I don’t know what he was doing there, but I know who did this to him.”
“Who?” Ben asked, looking up.
“It was Jeb Jenner.”
“Jeb!” Ben exclaimed. “Where is he now?”
Adam shook his head. “I don’t know.” He said. “Though if he’s got any sense he’ll be high tailing it out of here. I’ll give you a hand to get Joe to his room and then I’m going after him.”
An angry frown creased Ben’s brow as he looked down at his bruised and battered youngest son. “I’ll deal with Jenner.” He said coldly.
“No, you need to stay with Joe.” Adam told him grimly. “I told Joe that I’d stop Jeb, and make sure Tom was safe, and that’s what I’m going to do.”
Leaving Joe in his father’s capable hands Adam lost no time in saddling a horse and heading for Jeb’s house. He didn’t really expect to find the man there, assuming that after what he’d done Jeb would be leaving town as quickly as possible, so it came as a surprise to find all three of the Jenner’s horses tethered outside of the little cabin, as well as Cochise. Dismounting and hitching his horse alongside the others, Adam gently patted his brother’s pinto in passing, before striding to the cabin door and pounding on it loudly with his fist.
“Jeb!” He yelled when there was no reply. “Get out here, now!”
For a minute nothing happened, and Adam had just raised his hand to hammer on the door again when it swung wide, revealing a terrified looking Jake.
“I need to see your father.” Adam said, trying to keeping his tone of voice even so as not to scare the child further. “Is he here?”
Jake nodded. “He’s in the b-bedroom with Tom.” He told him in a quivering voice.
“Right.” Adam caught the boy gently by the arm and pulled him out into the sunshine. “I want you to stay out here, Jake.” He told him quietly. “Your Pa and I have some private things to discuss. Would you do that for me?”
Jake looked up at him, wide blue eyes beginning to well with tears and bottom lip quivering. “Please don’t hurt my Pa.” He begged softly. “Please don’t.”
“I just want to talk to him.” Adam said reassuringly. “So will you stay here while I do that?”
Tears trembled on the blonde lashes before brimming over to run down the child’s thin cheeks, but he nodded slowly.
“Good boy.” Adam told him with an encouraging smile, and a comforting pat on the shoulder. “I won’t be long.”
Leaving Jake on the porch, Adam cautiously entered the house, right hand hovering over his gun, alert for any sign of trouble. The main room of the cabin was empty but showed signs that Jeb and his sons were getting ready to leave, untidy piles of clothes and food were heaped on the table, ready to be packed into waiting saddlebags. The door to the bedroom was closed, and Adam hesitated for a moment before reaching for the handle, keeping to one side in case he should be met with gunfire.
As the door swung open Adam heard Tom’s voice. “It’s all right Mr Cartwright, you can come in.”
Looking round the door, he saw Tom standing by the window, his gaze fixed on his father, who was sitting on the bed. Adam had expected to find an angry, defiant man but Jeb’s whole posture was one of defeat, his shoulders slumped, his eyes downcast.
“I thought you’d be long gone.” Adam said coldly, walking into the room. “You must have known I’d come after you.”
“I couldn’t leave without my boys.” Jeb said, staring down at his bruised hands, his voice flat, unemotional. “I had to come get them.” He darted a quick glance at Adam, unable to meet his eyes. “I’m sorry about your brother.”
“Sorry!” Adam exclaimed angrily. “You beat him, left him lying unconscious and you’re sorry!”
“He taunted me.” Jeb explained, as though that excused what had happened. “I was trying to show him a little discipline, let him know he shouldn’t talk to his elders that way. Then I guess I lost my temper, just couldn’t stop.”
“So you beat up a sixteen year old kid.” Adam sneered. “The way you beat your own son. What kind of a coward are you, Jenner? Why don’t you try taking on a man instead of a boy? You want to fight me as well as my brother?”
For a moment Jeb tensed, and anger suffused his face but the moment passed and the anger drained away. Slowly, he shook his head.
“Are you gonna take him to the law?” Tom asked, his voice breaking the silence that had fallen in the room.
“I’m going to take him into
Sheriff Coffee in
“Will he go to prison?”
“I think so.”
At Adam’s words Jeb reached out a tentative hand towards his son. “Look after Jakey for me.” He said softly.
Ignoring his father’s gesture Tom nodded, his face solemn. “I’ll look after him.” He said quietly. “But I want to tell you, Pa, I hope they put you in jail for a good long time. And when you get out I hope I’m big enough to do to you what you’ve been doing to me all this time. You ain’t never gonna beat me again, you hear that? Never.” Turning away he walked from the room.
“I ought to hate you for what you just did to my kid brother.” Adam said, grasping Jeb’s arm and jerking the man roughly to his feet. “But I almost feel sorry for you. You’ve got two fine sons, two boys who should care for you the way my brothers and I care for our father. But instead of giving them the love they deserve you terrorise them, beat your elder son and frighten young Jake until he’s scared of his own shadow. Perhaps there’s something wrong with you, I don’t know, but I do know that your kids will be glad if they never see you again and I can’t say I blame them.”
Coming down the stairs into the great room of the Ponderosa, Doctor Paul Martin smiled reassuringly at Ben, who was waiting anxiously for his verdict.
“Well, he’s awake at last.” He told him. “And I think he’ll be just fine. He’s battered and bruised, but no broken bones. Oh, he’s going to feel pretty sore for a week or so but there won’t be any lasting damage.”
“I thought at the very least his nose was broken.” Ben said, relieved at the doctor’s verdict. “His face is so badly beaten.”
Paul shook his head. “Once the swelling goes down and the bruises fade he’ll look as good as ever.” He told him with a wry smile. “I’ve just had to reassure him about that. The bruises on his chest and stomach were more worrying, but I’m confident that there’s no internal damage. He’s very lucky, Ben, it could have been a lot worse. You do realise he pretty much goaded Jeb into attacking him?”
“I didn’t know, but it makes sense.” Ben said, not quite sure whether his overriding emotion right now was thankfulness that Joe had come off so lightly, or anger at his son for confronting Jeb in the first place. “I should have seen it coming, Joe was so angry about what was happening to young Tom.”
“He told me about Jenner beating his son. He thought that if Jeb went to prison everything would turn out all right for Tom and his brother.” Paul told him, retrieving his hat from the credenza where he’d left it on the way in. “Said the law couldn’t do anything. So, Joe planned to get the man sent to prison for assault. He thinks with Jeb gone all the boys’ troubles will be over.”
“Joe gets some half-cocked notions at times.” Ben said, opening the door for the doctor. “Going up against a big strong man like Jenner. It’s hardly any wonder he lost the fight.”
“Oh, it wasn’t a fight.” Paul told him, to Ben’s amazement. “Joe didn’t want to fight Jeb, that way the man could have claimed self-defence. No, Joe just stood there and let Jeb beat him up.”
As soon as the doctor had left, in a hurry to get back to Virginia City while there was still a touch of light in the sky, Ben headed up the stairs to Joe’s room, eager to find out for himself how his youngest son was feeling. Opening the door he was met by an anxious, though mumbled, enquiry. “Did Adam get Jeb?”
“I don’t know, son, he’s not back yet.” Ben said, taking a seat on the chair beside Joe’s bed, and casting a sympathetic look at the youth’s battered features. “More importantly, how are you?”
“Sore.” Joe owned thickly, through bruised lips. “Guess you’re wondering why I did it?”
“Doctor Martin told me what you said.” Ben shook his head in a show of exasperation. “It was a foolish thing to do, Joe, the man could have killed you.”
“Didn’t think he’d have time to do much damage.” Joe admitted ruefully, the words more than a little slurred as he tried not to move his aching jaw too much. “Adam was s’posed to turn up and stop him.”
“Oh, so that was the plan.” Enlightenment dawned on Ben. “You worked that out when you heard what Adam said this morning, I suppose?”
Joe nodded. “But Adam didn’t turn up when he said.”
“And by the time you realised that, it was too late?”
“Yeh.” Joe grimaced at the memory
of Jeb’s furious attack. “Didn’t think it would be so bad, or hurt so much.” He
touched a finger to one bruised cheekbone, and looked away from his father as
he confessed huskily. “I was scared,
“That’s hardly surprising.” Ben said, his heart going out to his son as he heard the shame in the young man’s voice at this admission. “It was a brave thing you did, Joe. Foolhardy, but brave. Tom is very lucky to have you as a friend.”
A ghost of a smile tugged at the corner of Joe’s mouth at the words of praise. “Hope I haven’t made it worse for him, what if Jeb went home and found him, what if he….”
“There’s no point in worrying about it now.” Ben interrupted quickly, seeing that Joe was becoming agitated. “We’ll know soon enough, when Adam comes home.”
“Hope he’s found him, and taken him to Sheriff Coffee.”
Privately, Ben hoped that was all that Adam had done, his eldest son had left in an angry mood. “Joseph.” He said softly, hating to broach the subject of what was likely to happen to Jeb, but knowing he must. “You do realise that even if Adam has found Jeb, and he goes to trial, he’s not likely to be sentenced to a long prison term?”
Even through the dark swellings around his son’s eyes Ben could see the alarm flare in them. “But he has to.” Joe protested angrily. “That’s why I did it! To keep him away from Tom and Jake.”
“I’m sorry.” Ben told him gently, noting sadly the bitter look that settled on his son’s face as he spoke. “I’m sure that Jeb will be punished, but not as severely as you hoped. I doubt that the court would jail him for long anyway, and when they hear that you provoked the attack they aren’t going to be very sympathetic.”
“Then I’ll tell them what he does
to Tom, he has to be stopped,
Ben shook his head gravely, compassion in his dark eyes. “I’m sorry to say that a lot of people would think that what happens between Jeb and his son is a family matter, Joseph. They might not agree with it, but they won’t condemn it either. And as we’ve already discussed, he’s breaking no law.”
“It’s just not fair….” Furious, Joe was about to voice his objections, ignoring the pain that talking was causing him, but he was halted by the sound of hooves in the yard outside.
Getting to his feet, Ben crossed to the window, pulling aside the drape to peer out into the dusk. “It’s Adam.” He confirmed, seeing the shadowy figure of Sport tied to the hitching rail, and the spill of light on the ground as his oldest son flung open the ranch house door.
Arriving in Joe’s room moments later, Adam was relieved to see his brother awake and alert. He’d met Paul Martin on the road and the doctor had assured him that Joe would be fine, but the memory of the unconscious young man he’d left at the Ponderosa had haunted him until now.
“Did you find Jenner?” Ben asked, and tensed at Adam’s curt nod. “What happened?”
Taking the seat beside Joe’s bed, Adam ignored the question, his attention on his brother. “You all right, Joe?” He asked, a concerned frown creasing his brow as he took in the myriad cuts and bruises that adorned the youth’s face.
Managing a crooked grin, Joe shrugged, and then winced as the movement caused a flare of pain. “Been better.” He allowed.
“Adam.” Ben persisted, moving closer to the bed. “You didn’t….”
“I didn’t what?” Adam asked, tearing his gaze from Joe and turning to look at his father. “Beat him up like he did Joe? No I didn’t.” He chuckled mirthlessly at Ben’s audible sigh of relief. “Oh, don’t think I didn’t want to Pa, after what he did to Joe, but I just couldn’t. For a start young Jake begged me not to, but even then, if Jeb had started anything….. But…I don’t know…the man appeared to have no fight left in him. He seemed pathetic somehow, almost pitiable. To hit him would have been a bit like beating a whipped dog.”
“Tom?” Asked Joe anxiously, thoughts of his friend uppermost in his mind. “He all right?”
“He’s fine, just fine. In fact he surprised me today.”
“Surprised you?” Ben queried. “In what way?”
“Just how he handled things.” Adam thought back to Tom’s parting words to his father, and how the youth had comforted young Jake as Adam led Jeb away. “He seemed older somehow, and not scared of his father at all.”
“Not scared!” Joe exclaimed in disbelief. “But he is, Adam, he always has been.”
“He certainly didn’t act it this afternoon.” Adam looked up at Ben. “I’m assuming it will be all right with you, Pa, if the two boys stay on here until Jeb comes home?”
“Of course.” Ben assured him. “As long as necessary.”
“It’ll be a couple of weeks before the circuit judge gets here.” Adam told him. “Then it’s up to the court.” He turned to look at Joe once more, hazel eyes quizzical. “Jeb said you taunted him, Joe, did you?”
Joe nodded gloomily, not bothering to explain his actions. His anger had faded now, his face and body were throbbing with pain, and he felt miserably guilty. He had set out with the best of intentions, to help his friend and Jake, now it seemed all he’d achieved was a painful beating. Worse than that, he could have put Tom in even more danger, for he was pretty sure Jeb wouldn’t take kindly to being locked up, and his son would no doubt bear the brunt of his anger when he got home. And whatever Adam said, he knew how frightened Tom was. Sliding down in the bed, Joe closed his eyes and feigned sleep, hoping that his father and brother would leave him alone. But, when they did eventually exit the room, Ben pausing to gently adjust the covers around him, he felt bereft and despondent. Aching as much with guilt as from his bruises, it was a very long time before he finally drifted into a troubled sleep.
“Hey, Hoss.” Seeing his brother seated at the breakfast table with Adam and Ben the following morning Joe greeted him with delight. “When did you get home?”
“’Bout an hour ago.” Hoss told him, blue eyes narrowing in unspoken sympathy as he took in the state of Joe’s face, and the slow and painful way his brother descended the stairs and limped across the room. “Pa’s just been tellin’ me about your run in with Jeb. Sure messed you up didn’t he?”
Joe grimaced, he’d just seen the damage for himself in the mirror in his room, and had to agree that he wasn’t a pretty sight.
“Guess you won’t be dancin’ with too many girls at the next dance.” Hoss added, with a gently teasing grin. “You’ll frighten ‘em all away lookin’ like that.”
“Oh, I don’t know.” As Joe lowered himself carefully onto the seat next to him, Adam scrutinized the youth’s battered features. “You could always go for the sympathy vote, Joe. I’ll bet there are plenty of girls only too willing to kiss you better.”
“Very funny.” Joe scowled at his brothers, a hint of pink touching the few parts of his face that weren’t already coloured by his bruises.
“I’m sure Joe will be back to normal very soon.” Ben put in, though an anxious frown creased his brow as he surveyed his youngest son. “Are you sure you’re feeling well enough to be down here, Joseph? It might be best if you stayed in bed today.”
“I’m all right,
“Are you up to eating breakfast?” Ben asked, not at all reassured by his son’s answer, but not wanting to force the boy to stay in bed if he didn’t want to.
“Perhaps some scrambled eggs?” Joe suggested hesitantly, feeling a stir of hunger but knowing that there was no way he could tackle the bacon that the rest of the family were eating.
“I suppose that…” Ben began, but was interrupted by a knock on the door. Pushing his plate aside, Adam went to answer it, not surprised to find that the caller was Tom Jenner.
“Morning Mr. Cartwright.” Tom shuffled his feet nervously as he looked up at Adam. “I was just wondering if I might have a word with Joe? That is, if he’s fit enough.”
“Well, he’s up and about.” Adam said, ushering the boy inside. “And I think he’ll be glad to see you.”
Approaching the table, Tom stopped short as he caught sight of his friend’s face. “Joe.” He breathed hoarsely. “I’m so sorry.”
“You’ve nothing to be sorry for.” Joe said, getting to his feet. “I’m the one should be sorry. I tried to help, but seems all I’ve done is made things worse.”
Tom shook his head. “No, you haven’t.” He declared firmly. “In fact. . .” He hesitated and cast a quick glance at Joe’s family seated round the table. “Er…could we talk privately?”
“We could go out on the porch, I guess.” Joe suggested, looking to his father for approval. “That all right with you, Pa?”
Ben nodded. “But don’t be too long.” He cautioned.
“I won’t be.” Joe assured him, leading the way out on to the porch and settling himself down in the old rocking chair, while Tom squatted down beside him.
“I’m sorry how things turned out.” Joe began, guilt taking hold of him once more as he looked down at his friend. “I thought if I….”
“Listen, Joe!” Tom held up a hand to stop the other youth. “I came to tell you what happened yesterday, when my Pa came home.”
“He didn’t hurt you, did he?”
“No.” Tom shook his head. “Far from it in fact.” He looked up Joe, a triumphant gleam dancing in his blue eyes. “I stopped being scared, Joe, I’m not frightened of him anymore and it’s all due to you.”
“To me?” Joe asked, puzzled by Tom’s assertion. “What have I got to do with it?”
“When he rode in I could see he was angry.” Tom told him. “And I was scared, thought I must have done something to upset him. But he practically ignored me, just started pulling open drawers and cupboards and told me we had to leave. Then he told me why.”
“He told you what happened?”
“Yep. Told me he’d hit you. Oh, he said it was your own fault, and that he needed to show you some discipline, same kind of excuses he used with me. I don’t know what happened but suddenly I just got mad at him. It was kind of the final straw, but instead of being scared I was angry.”
“So, what did you do?”
“I stood up to him. First time in my whole life, I stood up to him. Told him what I thought of him, that he was a bully and a coward. And you know what, Joe, he didn’t know what to do!”
“He didn’t hit you?” Joe was surprised. He’d expected Jeb to take his anger out on his son.
Tom shook his head. “I reckon he was actually scared of me.” He said with a touch of pride, and a grin. “He’s never had anyone stand up to him before, and he just backed off. Now I’m gonna make sure he never touches me again, not me or Jake.”
“But he’s going to be real angry when he gets home.” Joe said anxiously. “What are you going do then?”
“I won’t be there.” Tom informed him. “That’s the other thing I came to tell you. I’ve decided to take my chance, take Jake and get away from here. I’m not scared for myself anymore, but I don’t want him anywhere near Jake.”
“But what about what you said?” Joe protested, worried for his friend. “You said they’d send people after you, bring you home.”
“They still might.” Tom said, and his blue eyes clouded at the thought. “But I have to take the chance. I’m going to head west, to the goldfields. There’s some lawless places there, and plenty of kids on their own. Hopefully there’ll be no questions asked. I’ve got a little money, a few dollars my Ma made from doing some dressmaking and gave me before she died. It’s not much, but it’s enough for Jakey and me to live on for a while.”
“When are you going?”
“Tonight.” Tom looked up at Joe, and smiled nervously. “And I need to ask you a favour about that.”
“Anything.” Joe assured him earnestly. “I’ve got a few dollars you could have, and I could borrow….”
“I don’t need money.” Tom interrupted him, with a shake of his blonde head. “It’s just…when I don’t turn up for work in the morning, it won’t take Adam long to find out I’ve taken Jake and left. I need you to stop him going to the law, or coming to look for us. Do you think you could do that?”
“I’ll do my best.” Joe wasn’t too sure how he’d dissuade Adam if he decided the law should be brought in, but he was determined to try.
“Thanks.” Getting to his feet, Tom held out his hand to Joe. “Thanks for everything. It’s been good to know you.”
“You’ll write?” Joe asked, grasping Tom’s hand and shaking it firmly. “Let me know how you get on?”
“Best if I don’t.” Tom said softly. “Not that I don’t trust you not to tell anyone where we are, but letters can be intercepted.”
Joe nodded his understanding. “I guess so.” He agreed. “Well, best of luck to you both, wherever you end up.”
“Thanks.” And with a last quick smile for his friend, Tom turned and walked away.
It wasn’t so much Joe’s entreaties that stayed Adam and Ben’s hand the following morning, when they found out that the Jenner boys had left the ranch, but the sight of his still livid bruises. The thought that Tom had undergone such beatings on a regular basis sickened both father and son to their stomachs, and despite Ben’s misgivings about young Jake’s welfare it was agreed that the boys’ departure wouldn’t be mentioned, unless Jenner or the Sheriff asked after them. By the time Jeb returned to the Ponderosa, after serving a month in jail, his sons were long gone.
The years passed, and though Joe occasionally wondered what had become of Tom and Jake, he’d almost forgotten about them, when, some six years later, a letter arrived at the ranch. It was just a short note, but for Joe it finally laid to rest the lingering guilt he had felt over his part in the break-up of the Jenner family, and reassured Adam and Ben that they had done the right thing in letting the boys go.
I guess you’ll be surprised to hear from me after all this time, but I ain’t ever forgotten you, or what you did for me and Jake. I just thought you might like to know that it turned out well for us both. We had some hard times, but we came through them, and at least we had each other and didn’t have to be scared of Pa anymore. Jake’s grown-up real well and I’m mighty proud of him.
I’m a married man now, Joe, with a baby on the way. You know, I remember how you used to talk about your Pa, and, though I never said anything, I used to get a little jealous, wishing my Pa was like yours. Now I’m gonna get the chance to be a good father to my own kid, and I aim to make my child as proud of me as you were of your Pa.
I reckon I owe that chance to you, Joe. You gave me the courage to stand up to my father, the courage to finally break away from him. For that I will always be grateful.
Kathleen Pitts. May 2003
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