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Summary: The Cartwrights discover dangerous and unwanted company on the Ponderosa. This story was a submission for a Bonanza Ballads challange
Characters: Adam , Hoss, Little Joe, Ben, Sheriff Coffee, Hop Sing
It was a cold morning in early spring and the winter snows had already melted away. Joe rode through the Ponderosa pines as he noticed the ground was still hard and not yet softened from recent spring rains. Bushes had started sprouting green leaves and wildflowers had begun to peek up from the ground to bloom.
Pa had sent Joe and his brothers and some of the ranch hands out to check fences. Each was assigned a certain section of the fence that surrounded the Ponderosa. As Joe approached his section of the fence he noticed a thin wisp of gray smoke rising up from the trees in the distance. It appeared to be coming from where one of the line shacks was located. Maybe a weary traveler had started a fire in the fireplace of the cabin. Still Joe knew he needed to make sure a forest fire hadn’t started. He decided the fence checking would have to wait.
Joe reigned Cochise away from the fence line and toward the smoke. As they followed a trail that lead to the line shack a teenage boy, who looked to be about 15 or 16, stepped out of the bushes with a rifle aimed right Joe. Joe immediately pulled Cochise to a stop.
“Not so fast, stranger!” The boy exclaimed with a proud smile like he was doing something big.
Joe replied, “You are trespassing on private property!”
“Oh is that so? We found an abandoned cabin near here.”
“That cabin was not abandoned!” Joe sensed his anger start to rise. “We keep it stocked for our ranch hands to use.”
“Ranch hands? Is this supposed to be some kind of ranch?”
“This is the Ponderosa you’re standing on.”
The boy sneered, “The Ponderosa? We’ve heard of the Ponderosa. Some rich family owns it. They’re full of money and like to throw their weight around.”
“Like I said you’re trespassing on private property,” Joe answered. “Who are you and who’s ‘we’?”
The boy questioned, “And who are you?”
“I’m Joe Cartwright. My family owns this land. Now who are you?”
“So it’s your family who owns the Ponderosa.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m Toby Denson.”
“Denson?” Joe thought the name sounded vaguely familiar.
“Maybe you’ve heard of my pa and my uncle, Miles and Grant Denson.”
“The Denson gang?”
“That be us.”
Joe remembered hearing of the Densons a few times in the past. He had heard that they were a gang of brothers who occasionally robbed banks and stagecoaches across the west with posses always losing their trail. They had also killed several people over the years. Now they were here on the Ponderosa. Joe swallowed hard while wondering what he should do next. He knew it was not a good time to do anything foolish or rash. He also didn’t know where the rest of the gang was. Someone could be hiding in the bushes right now watching this scene.
“Now drop your gun belt and your rifle,” Toby commanded like he was trying to be tough. “Or I’ll blow your head off!”
Joe slowly dropped his gun belt and rifle to the ground. Toby kept his rifle pointed at Joe as he picked up Joe’s gun belt and rifle, and slung them over his shoulder.
Toby added, “All right get down slow and easy.”
Joe carefully slid down off of Cochise to the ground.
“Start walking toward the cabin.”
Joe started walking up the trail toward the line shack and glanced back over his shoulder. “What about my horse?”
“He’s fine where he is,” Toby replied as he followed behind Joe. “Keep moving.”
They continued walking through the trees.
Toby questioned, “How many of you Cartwrights are there here?”
“Four. Why?” Joe answered.
“I was just wondering. So there’s only four of you.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“How many are in your gang? Is it just you and your pa and your uncle?”
“No there’s four of us too. I guess that makes it even don’t it?”
Joe thought about that for a moment as he remembered the ranch hands and replied, “Maybe.”
“What do you mean ‘maybe’?”
Silence followed before they stepped into the clearing that was in front of the cabin. Joe did not see anyone outside, but he spotted four horses tied to the hitching rail beside the cabin.
Toby called out, “Hey, Pa! Look what I found!”
Joe quietly watched three men walk out of the cabin with their guns drawn. Two of them were gray-haired with angular faces and looked similar like they were related. The third man was white-haired and appeared to be a little older than the other two. They all had hardened looks to them and their eyes were very cold.
Joe wondered how he was going to get out of this one. He realized this gang of outlaws had apparently holed up in the cabin during the winter. He tried to remember all of the details he had heard about the Denson gang. Joe mustered all the courage he could show in his face. He did not want them to know he was afraid and worried. He also wondered what was going to become of himself, his family, all of the men who worked the ranch, and the Ponderosa.
“Who’s this?” One of the gray-haired men asked.
Toby replied, “He says he’s Joe Cartwright and this is his ranch.”
Joe added as firmly, “This is the Ponderosa and you are trespassing.”
“Oh is that so?” The gray-haired man answered in a mocking tone. “We found this cabin abandoned.”
“It was never abandoned!” Joe almost spit. “We keep it stocked for our ranch hands to use if they need it. You found food, supplies and firewood didn’t you?”
“Yes we did. We spent the winter here.”
“Who are you?”
The man smiled a crooked smile like he was somehow proud of himself. “I am Miles Denson.” He motioned to Toby. “That there is my boy Toby.” Then he motioned to the other gray-haired man. “This is my brother Grant and our old friend TJ. Perhaps you’ve heard of us. We’re the Denson gang.”
Joe answered, “I’ve heard of you. Like I said you’re trespassing. We would like for you to leave.”
The four outlaws all laughed.
“What’s so funny?” Joe questioned.
“So this is the Ponderosa,” Miles replied. “We’ve heard it’s the biggest ranch in Nevada and you Cartwrights are very rich.” He glanced around at the others. “We’re standing on a gold mine and you, Mr. Cartwright, are our prisoner!”
Joe glared at Miles as he sensed mixed feelings surging inside of him. He wanted to turn and start fighting these guys, but they all had guns and he didn’t. He also wanted to run back to Cochise and ride away, but what good would that do if they shot him while he was trying to get away? Joe felt strongly he needed to carefully watch his every move with these guys. He remembered a long time ago Adam once told him to not do anything foolish if he ever found himself in a dangerous situation.
Joe decided he had better wait until a more opportune time. Still he wondered how to let his family know what was going on. Would they know he was in big trouble?
Miles asked, “How many of you Cartwrights are there?”
Joe remained silent while he thought it might be a good idea to not give the gang any information. He remembered there were times when Adam did not answer questions when he was in a threatening situation.
Toby answered, “He said there’s four of them.”
After a pause TJ said to Miles, “I once heard someone say to never mess with the Cartwrights.”
Miles smiled. “And we’ll just prove them wrong.”
“Miles, we’ve hit small ranches before and even a big one,” Grant said. “But we’ve never even hit one as big as the Ponderosa.”
“That makes no difference.” Miles chuckled like it was a joke. “I seem to remember hearing the name Ben Cartwright. Who’s he?”
Joe carefully informed, “He’s my father.”
“Well, we’ll just round you four up and make one of you give us all of your money. Then we’ll be gone.”
At that moment Joe noticed movement up out of the corner of his eye. He looked to see two squirrels jump out of one of the Ponderosa pines and onto the cabin roof. The outlaws all turned and looked as the squirrels chased each other around the roof.
“Those two have been after each other all week,” Toby commented.
Joe replied, “They do that.”
The squirrels ran across the roof and disappeared on the other side.
It was late morning as Ben sat at his desk while he looked at a couple of timber contract bids that he and Adam had looked at the night before. Hop Sing walked up with a pot of coffee.
“Coffee, Mr. Cartwright?” Hop Sing asked.
“Yes, please.” Ben lifted up his nearly empty cup. “Thank you.”
Hop Sing poured coffee into the cup, and Ben set the cup down on the desk. Then a horse’s hoof beats sounded from outside in the yard.
“Who could that be?” Ben asked as he got up.
They both stepped over to the study window and looked out. There Cochise trotted across the yard with Joe nowhere in sight.
“What the …” Ben said and hurried out the door with Hop Sing following behind him. He rushed up to Cochise and grabbed the horse’s reigns while he looked for any sign of Joe.
“Joe!” Ben lead Cochise back across the yard. “Joe!”
There followed silence except for some birds chirping and singing in the trees. Ben wondered what could have happened to his youngest son. Then he noticed the rifle scabbard was empty. Now what could that mean?
“His rifle is gone,” Ben said aloud. “Joe must have run into some kind of trouble.”
Hop Sing replied, “Something bad happen.”
“I need to go find him!”
Ben tied Cochise to a hitching rail. Then he rushed into the barn to get Buck.
The cabin was just one room with a table, chairs, two sets of bunk beds, a stove, fireplace and shelves with food and supplies. Joe’s hands were tied behind his back as he sat on the floor next to the back wall. The back window was almost right above him. Toby was inside the cabin with Joe while TJ had stepped outside to take a break after playing a game of checkers with Toby. Miles and Grant had gone off to wait out on the trail for a Cartwright to come looking for Joe.
Joe questioned Toby, “Have you ever thought about someday owning your own land and working it?”
“Yeah, a little bit.” Toby shrugged his shoulders. “But Pa says no man should be a slave to the soil. It’s a whole lot easier to hit banks and stagecoaches and even ranches.”
“Easier? How easy is it to have to always stay at least one step ahead of the law?”
“Pa says he always loves a good cat and mouse game.”
Joe stared incredulously at Toby.
Toby continued, “He knows how to lose a posse real quick. Have you traveled around and seen different parts of the country and the beauty of it?”
“Yes I have,” Joe replied.
“Pa knows how to hit a bank real quick and get the heck out of town before anyone knows what happened.”
Joe thought he wanted to show Toby that there was a better way of life than robbing and killing people. “My pa worked real hard for a lot of years to make this ranch what it is. He started with buying land and cattle. Now he has men working for him. He loves ranching.”
Toby shook his head. “My pa says our way is a lot easier. Why wait years? Is your pa any good with a gun? My pa once dropped a man who was a mile away.”
“Gee I wonder what that man’s family thought?”
“They probably figured he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s what Pa always says. He shouldn’t have been there.”
“And how was he supposed to know that?” Joe tried to reason. “I wonder if he had children at home who were waiting for their pa to come home and he never came home.”
Toby laughed. “You sound as bad as my ma! She always tried to change my pa and she never could.”
“Where’s your ma?”
“She owns a saloon back in Wyoming. I lived with her until about three years ago. Pa came and got me and said I need to learn to be a man.”
“What did she say about that?”
“She begged me to stay and not go with him. My pa is a very great man - better than yours slaving from the soil or whatever he does.”
Hot anger started to rise within Joe as he considered getting up and lunging into Toby until he noticed Toby’s gun laying on the table. Then from outside a creature’s loud chattering sounded. Joe recognized it as the sound of a squirrel scolding someone or something.
“Is that a squirrel making a fuss?” Toby questioned as he looked over at the door.
“Yes,” Joe answered.
Right then TJ stepped inside the cabin.
“What’s that racket out there?” Toby asked him.
“Oh some squirrel in a tree.” TJ sat down at the table. “It doesn’t like something. Shall we play another game?”
Ben slowly rode along on Buck with Cochise following behind them. From time to time he stopped and called out Joe’s name several times, and no one answered. He wondered where his youngest son could be and what had happened. Ben hoped that Joe had not been attacked by some wild animal or had some kind of terrible accident. Cochise showed no signs of any kind of injuries. They soon reached the section of fence that Joe had been assigned to. He looked carefully around and saw no sign of Joe anywhere.
“Joe!” Ben yelled loudly. “Joseph!”
There was still no reply. All he heard were birds chirping in the trees.
Then Ben saw smoke rising from distant trees. He remembered there was a line shack in that area. Was somebody in the cabin? What was the meaning of this? Ben soon found the trail that lead to the cabin while he continued carefully looking around. Then two gray-haired men stepped out of the bushes with their rifles pointed at him. They both looked similar like they were brothers. Ben and the horses came to a stop.
“Going somewhere, stranger?” One of the men asked.
“I am Ben Cartwright and this is my land you’re on!” Ben bellowed. “Who are you?”
“We’re the Denson gang. Perhaps you’ve heard of us.”
Ben recognized the name of the Denson gang. He tried to remember what he had heard about them. And where was Joe in all of this?
The man continued, “We found an abandoned cabin over here.”
“That cabin is one of our line shacks for our ranch hands to use,” Ben informed. “It was never abandoned.”
“That’s what another man told us.”
“What have you done with my son?”
The man softly chuckled like he thought this was a little game. “Drop those guns of yours slow and easy, and get off of your horse slow and easy. Then you’ll find out, Mr. Cartwright.”
Ben felt like he could kick himself for allowing himself to go into a trap. He hoped Joe was all right and nothing bad had happened to him. He hoped that Adam and Hoss would figure out that there was serious trouble here and they would somehow get help.
It was late afternoon as Hoss rode Chub into the yard and noticed Buck and Cochise tied to one of the hitching rails. Then Hop Sing came running out of the ranch house.
“Mr. Hoss!” Hop Sing yelled as he hurried over while Hoss got down from Chub. “Mr. Cartwright Mr. Joe trouble!”
Hoss looked around. “What? Where?”
“What do you mean you don’t know?”
“Horses come home. No Mr. Joe. No Mr. Cartwright.”
Hoss thought about that for a moment and replied, “Now wait a minute. Pa sent us out to check fences and he was staying home to work on paperwork. Maybe you had better start from the beginning, Hop Sing. How did this whole thing start?”
“Cochise come home. No Mr. Joe. Mr. Cartwright go find him. Take Cochise. Both horses come home. No Mr. Joe. No Mr. Cartwright. Trouble I tell you!”
“It certainly sounds like it.” Hoss glanced over at Buck and Cochise. “When did Cochise come home the first time?”
“About late morning?”
“And when did both horses come home?”
“About an hour ago.”
Hoss walked over to Buck and Cochise. “Were they limping at all?”
Hoss looked carefully over both horses. “I don’t see any scratches or anything like that on them.” Then he noticed the rifle scabbards on the horses were both empty. “Wait a minute. Their rifles are both missing.” He turned back to Hop Sing. “Was Joe’s rifle there when Cochise came home the first time?”
Hop Sing shook his head. “No. Gone.”
“I sure wish I had been paying attention when Pa told Joe where to go.” Hoss paused as he looked around. “Has Adam come home yet?”
“I think he’ll be home soon. I’m sure he knows where Pa sent Joe.”
It was still late afternoon when Adam arrived home. As he rode Sport into the yard he noticed Buck, Chub, and Cochise all tied to one of the hitching rails.
“Adam!” Hoss yelled as he ran out of the ranch house with Hop Sing right behind him. “Pa and Joe are in some kind of trouble!”
Adam got down off of Sport. “Where?”
“That we don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know? Their horses are right there.”
“Their horses both came home without them.”
Adam listened as Hoss and Hop Sing both told him about Cochise coming home without Joe and his rifle, Pa leaving with Cochise, Buck and Cochise coming home without Pa and Joe, and both of their rifles missing. Hoss had come home about a half hour ago. He checked the horses over carefully, walked them around and saw no signs of injuries from falling or even stumbling. Adam looked over at the horses while he quietly thought about the whole situation.
Hoss asked, “I’m sure you know where Pa sent Joe?”
“Yes I know exactly where Pa sent him.” Adam turned toward the house. “I want to look at that map.”
Adam walked into the house with Hoss and Hop Sing following behind him. In Pa’s study they gazed at the map of the Ponderosa that always hung on the wall behind Pa’s desk.
Adam pointed at a far boundary line. “That’s where Pa sent Joe.” Then he remembered something. “Wait a minute. There’s a line shack right near there.”
“Yeah, there sure is,” Hoss replied.
“I’m getting a strange feeling that Joe ran into some uninvited company, and Pa went right into a trap thinking Joe was hurt somewhere.”
“I think you might be right.”
“If a trap has been set up for us we’re not going into it.”
Adam pointed at a nearby spot on the map. “There’s an arroyo in here.”
“Yeah there is.”
“If I remember right there’s a couple of good vantage points where we can go up and have a good look at what’s going on over there.”
“Yeah I think there are.”
Out of the study’s window they noticed foreman Hank Meyers ride into the yard at that moment. Adam turned and ran out of the house with Hoss and Hop Sing right behind him.
“Hank!” Adam called out.
Hank pulled his horse to a stop. “Yeah?”
“I want you to round up about five men who are real good with guns.”
“I’ll get right on it. We have trouble?”
“Yes. Pa and Joe’s horses came home with them, and their rifles are missing.”
“That doesn’t sound good.”
“We have some riding to do tonight.”
Now Joe and Pa both sat together against the back wall with their hands tied behind their backs. The outlaws sat at the table while they quickly ate a dinner of beef jerky and bean soup. They offered no food to Joe and Pa. A couple of times now Joe had noticed that the rope around his hands had not been tied real tight after he had been allowed outside to relieve himself. He wondered if he could wriggle his hands out to free himself and Pa. When would be a good time to do that?
Joe also remembered for a long time he had wanted to tell Pa how he felt about him as a father. Now was not the time to do it with outlaws listening in. Joe hoped they could get out of this situation so that he could finally tell Pa what a wonderful father he was. He wished he had told him long before this.
Soon Miles and Grant got up apparently to resume watch out on the trail.
“I expect your other boys will be along soon looking for their pa and their brother,” Miles told Pa.
Pa replied, “Maybe.”
Joe added, “It’s not unusual for us to be gone working the ranch for two or three days or so before we return home.”
Miles questioned, “What if your horses return without you?”
“My sons would be concerned,” Pa answered. “But our horses may or may not return home.”
“Then we’ll just wait for those boys of yours to show up looking for you.”
“Do you have any idea how big the Ponderosa is?”
“Oh I’ve heard about your little Ponderosa.”
“I have over 100 men working all over this ranch. It’s not going to take them very long to figure out that something has happened to us.”
And by the time they figure it out we’ll be long gone,” Miles said matter-of-factly. “That’s the thing about you ranchers and cowboys. You’re not really as bright as you like to think you are. One of your first mistakes was abandoning this cabin.”
“I have told you repeatedly this cabin was never abandoned! You had to climb a fence to get here!”
Miles shook his head as he and Grant stepped out the door.
Adam, Hoss, Hank and five ranch hands slowly rode beside the shallow creek of an arroyo during dusk. Adam looked around and motioned for everyone to stop. Then he, Hoss and Hank got down from their horses and climbed up the near slanting wall of the arroyo. When they reached the top Adam pulled out his binoculars and peered through it at the trees below. He looked and looked until in the distance he saw a man’s head sticking up out of the bushes. Then he noticed another man’s head sticking up as well. It appeared both men were sitting down in the bushes. Adam stared at them as he tried to determine in the gathering darkness if they could be Pa and Joe, but he had a strange feeling that they weren’t.
“Tell me what you see.” Adam handed the binoculars to Hoss.
Adam watched his brother look through the binoculars at the trees.
Hoss asked, “Do I see two guys sitting down in the bushes?”
“Yes.” Adam nodded. “Do they look familiar?”
“With it getting dark it’s hard to say. I have a funny feeling they’re not Pa and Joe.”
“I have the same feeling. I’m going to quietly go down there and have a look.”
“You be careful, Adam.”
Adam slowly climbed his way down through the trees in silence. Soon he heard voices whom he did not recognize. No those men were definitely not Pa and Joe. Who were they and what were they doing here?
Adam carefully stepped closer as one of the men said, “Yeah those Cartwrights are as dumb as they come. Soon enough we’ll get them all rounded up and get their money. Then we’ll kill them and we’ll be long gone before anyone knows that anything happened. It’ll be easy just like all of the others. You’ll see.”
“I hope so,” The other man replied. “I just have this worry we’re biting off more than we can chew.”
The first man laughed. “You worry too much, Grant.”
Adam decided it was obvious the two men knew where Pa and Joe were. Now where were they? In the cabin? Adam carefully returned back up to where Hoss and Hank were waiting for him.
“What did you find out?” Hoss asked.
Adam replied, “Well, they’re not Pa and Joe. One of them said something about rounding up the Cartwrights, taking our money and killing us. The other one is not so sure about the whole idea. It also sounded like they’ve done this before, and the name of one of them is Grant.”
“Grant? I don’t know anybody by that name.”
“I don’t either.”
The group continued riding down the arroyo for a little ways and stopped while dusk had turned to darkness. Once again Adam, Hoss and Hank climbed up to the top of the arroyo wall. Off through the trees Adam could make out the lighted windows of the cabin. He also noticed what looked like four horses tied to a hitching rail beside the cabin.
“Four horses,” Adam said. “I take it we must have four uninvited visitors to deal with. Come on, Hoss, let’s check this out.”
“Okay,” Hoss answered.
“Hank you stay here and wait for us.”
Hank nodded. “I’ll do that.”
Adam and Hoss carefully climbed down through the trees in silence. When they were close to the cabin they sat down in the bushes and hid. Then they each repeatedly made owl hooting calls. They only did two hoots at a time signaling Pa and Joe that they were there.
Over the years the Cartwrights had developed a series of secret signals with bird calls for each other. Two owl hoots meant “I’m here” and three owl hoots meant “Help is here”.
Now Adam whispered to Hoss, “I’m going to go and look in the back window.”
“Sure you want to do that, older brother?” Hoss whispered back. “They might see you.”
“I don’t plan for them to see me. I’m just going to take a quick look.”
Adam slowly moved through the bushes and made his way around to the backside of the cabin. Then he carefully stepped to the back window and looked in. First he noticed an older man and a teenage boy playing a game of checkers at the table. Then he saw Pa and Joe sitting down on the floor almost below the back window.
Joe had heard owls hooting outside while Toby and TJ played their checkers game. After about a couple of minutes he realized the “owls” were only making two hoots at a time. Adam and Hoss were here! They didn’t fall into the trap! Joe gazed over at Pa who was gazing at him with recognition in his dark-brown eyes. Then they both looked back at Toby and TJ. Joe felt encouraged that his brothers were out there somewhere. He knew his brothers would find a way to somehow help him and Pa get out of this situation.
Toby looked up at the door. “The owls are a little noisy tonight.”
“Sometimes they have a lot to say,” Joe replied.
TJ said, “It’s your move.”
Toby and TJ continued their game. The hooting lasted for a few more minutes and stopped. A little while later TJ happened to glance over at the back window.
“What!” TJ stood up with widened gray eyes. “What was that?”
Then everyone looked over at the window as Toby asked, “What?”
“Something was at the window!”
Pa calmly replied, “It could have been one of the owls.”
Joe added, “Probably. Owls have sometimes shown up at my bedroom window before.”
“I know I saw something move outside the window!” TJ rushed over to the back window and looked out. “It almost seemed like a human face.”
Toby replied, “We’ve seen owls at the windows here before. Or could it have been one of those squirrels?”
Joe smiled a little wryly. “Maybe one of the squirrels couldn’t sleep? Who knows.”
TJ walked out the door with gun in hand. “I’m going to look around.”
Joe and Pa watched Toby stand in the doorway while TJ disappeared outside.
“Is there somebody out here?” TJ’s voice called. “You had better show yourself!”
“It was probably just one of those owls or one of the squirrels,” Toby responded as he stepped outside and disappeared as well.
Joe looked over at Pa who was gazing at him. There was something about Pa’s eyes that said he knew who was probably at the window.
Joe whispered very low, “That was probably Adam or Hoss wasn’t it?”
“I believe so,” Pa whispered back. “Now they know where we are and they know we’ve got trouble here on the Ponderosa.”
Adam moved through the bushes as silently as possible as the older man stepped out of the cabin calling out for whoever was out in the darkness. He was very glad that the ground was still hard enough that he was not leaving footprints anywhere – especially under the cabin’s back window. Adam soon reached Hoss and they both stayed low in the bushes. They watched the man walk around the cabin and continue to call out for several minutes. The teenage boy had even stepped outside and insisted that the man had probably only seen an owl or a squirrel. Then the man and the boy returned inside the cabin and closed the door.
“That was too close,” Hoss whispered.
Adam nodded. “Yes it was.”
“Did you see Pa and Joe?”
“Yes they’re in there. Come on. Let’s go.”
They returned to where Hank still waited for them. Then the three of them climbed back down into the arroyo to join the other men.
“Did you see your pa and your brother?” Hank asked Adam.
Adam replied, “Yes they’re both being held prisoner inside the cabin. I want you to take one of the men with you and go and get the sheriff and bring him back here.”
“The rest of us will wait right here.”
It was in the middle of the night when Hank and one of the ranch hands returned with Sheriff Roy Coffee and one of his deputies. Hoss knew he and Adam were both glad to see Roy. Now how were they all going to free Pa and Joe?
All night long Hoss had tossed and turned on his bed roll without even a blink of sleep. His mind churned through one scenario after another of what could possibly happen. He hoped that Pa and Joe could be safely rescued. Hoss knew he would feel lost without his pa and his brothers.
“Hank says you heard the name Grant,” Roy told Adam.
Adam replied, “Yes.”
“You’ve heard of the Denson gang?”
“Yes I’ve heard of them a couple of times. They’re two or three brothers?”
“They’re two brothers named Grant and Miles Denson. They have an old friend TJ and Miles’ boy Toby with them.”
“That sounds like who we saw. They usually hit stagecoaches?”
“They sometimes hit stagecoaches and banks. Once in a while they’ve hit a ranch where they’ve killed the owners and their families, and then they rounded up the cattle and sold them.”
Hoss asked, “Have they ever been caught?”
“No.” Roy shook his head. “They’re very good at eluding posses. Besides we never know where they’re going to turn up. They’ve been robbing and killing all over the west. Now they were spotted back in November outside of Reno where they robbed a stagecoach and killed the driver.”
“Then they must have found this place and holed up for the winter.”
Adam added, “It sure sounds like it.” He paused a moment. “Sometimes when someone has been getting away with things for a long time they start to get careless.”
“Yes they do. Now we are going to be careful about the moves we make,” Roy informed. “First we’re going to wait until daylight when we can see …”
It was sometime before dawn when Ben heard what sounded like a couple of owls hooting. Then he noticed that the hoots came in threes. He knew Adam and Hoss had returned. This time the message was that they had help. He started to have a very good feeling that his two older sons had gotten Roy here. Ben nudged Joe, and Joe nudged him back. Though the cabin was totally dark he could somehow sense that his youngest son was smiling. He smiled too.
Ben glanced over at the bunk beds where three of the outlaws were asleep while the fourth one sat at the table snoring. The night before Miles had told Ben that he didn’t think his other boys would come looking for him and Joe in the middle of the night. Still Ben secretly understood that Miles Denson didn’t know Adam Cartwright and he certainly didn’t know Sheriff Roy Coffee.
Sunrise had started while the outlaws sat at the table eating a breakfast of eggs and pancakes.
“Mind if my pa and I have some?” Joe asked.
“Yes I do!” Miles replied. “No you two aren’t getting any!” He turned toward Pa with a mouthful of eggs. “As soon as we have the rest of your boys rounded up me and Grant are taking you to get money out of your safe.”
Pa answered, “We have a bunkhouse that’s right there near the house. Some of our ranch hands are bound to be there. Don’t you think they’re going to notice what’s going on?”
“That’s no problem. We’ll take care of anybody who’s there.”
“Mr. Denson, I told you I have over 100 men working this ranch. What’s two of you against even 10 or 20 of them?”
“We’ll take care of them. We always do.”
TJ laid down his fork and sighed like he was already starting to question this whole thing. “Miles, Mr. Cartwright has a very good point. Maybe we should just leave him and his boy here and just get out of here.”
“Are you turning yellow on us?” Miles had a grave look on his face.
“No. I just don’t like being a fool. Remember I told you that I once heard someone say to never mess with the Cartwrights?”
“Yes I do.”
“I’m starting to think they were right.”
Grant added, “You know I’ve always looked up to you, Miles, but this time I agree with TJ.”
Miles became silent for a few moments while he appeared to glare at both his brother and their friend.
Toby said, “Pa’s right. He’s always right.”
“That’s my boy,” Miles replied.
The outlaws finished eating their breakfast in silence. Then Grant and TJ left to presumably take their places watching the trail. Joe and Pa watched Miles and Toby sit down at the table and play a game of checkers.
Several minutes later a very familiar voice called from outside, “Miles and Toby Denson!”
Miles and Toby both stopped and looked toward the door.
“This is Sheriff Roy Coffee of Virginia City! We’ve just arrested Grant and TJ! We have this whole cabin surrounded! Both of you come out with your hands up!”
Joe and Pa watched as Miles and Toby immediately grabbed their guns, broke the front windows and pointed their guns out the windows.
“We’ll do no such thing!” Miles shouted back.
“There’s no way you’re going to win this! This is the end of the line!”
Joe started to pull against the ropes that bound his hands behind his back.
Miles answered, “No one tells me it’s the end of the line!”
“Miles, think about that son of yours! Is this what you really want for him?”
Miles fired out the window and Toby followed suit. They both ducked as bullets came back through the windows. Then they fired again.
Joe started trying to pull his hands out of the ropes while the shootout continued. He hoped he could get himself and Pa both untied. The next thing he knew Miles grabbed Pa and lead him right out the door!
“You let us all go or I’ll shoot Mr. Cartwright!” Miles called out.
Roy’s voice responded, “You know we can’t let you go! You have killed a lot of good people over the years! You will be held accountable for that!”
One of Joe’s hands finally slid out of the ropes.
Meanwhile outside Adam and Hoss quietly made their way through the bushes up to the side of the cabin. Adam signaled for Hoss to stop and then he carefully looked around the front corner of the cabin. There he saw Miles standing out front with a gun pointed at Pa’s head.
“I mean it!” Miles said. “You let us go or else!”
Roy answered back from the bushes ahead, “There are several guns trained on you! If you so much as raise a hand against Ben you’re dead!”
“You don’t scare me, Mr. Sheriff!”
Pa happened to look around and as he looked over his shoulder his eyes met Adam’s for a brief moment. Then he looked away as what sounded like a couple of squirrels chattering loudly came from the trees. Miles looked up at the trees and Pa suddenly dropped to the ground. Miles appeared to stumble almost off balance and pointed his gun again at Pa. Adam immediately raised his gun and fired. Miles fell to the ground motionless.
Back inside the cabin Joe finally got his hands out of the ropes and he started to get up on his feet.
Toby screamed, “Pa!”
Joe lunged at Toby and they both rolled and scuffled out the door. Joe somehow managed to knock the gun out of Toby’s hand. Then Toby crawled over to his father’s lifeless body.
“Oh, Pa!” Toby cried. “Don’t leave me. Please don’t leave me.”
Joe crawled over to Toby’s side as he realized that Miles’ gun was laying close by. He noticed Adam walking over and helping Pa up and starting to untie the ropes that bound his hands. He also saw Roy and some of the ranch hands stepping out of the bushes.
Toby looked up at Adam and yelled, “You killed my pa!” He grabbed his father’s gun and started to swing his arm around to shoot. “You killed my pa!”
“No you don’t!” Joe pushed Toby to the ground.
Toby pushed him off and sat up with the gun pointed at Joe. A gunshot sounded from the direction of where Roy stood. Toby fell back to the ground and laid motionless beside his father. For a few brief moments Joe stared in shock at him. He was just a kid and he had tried to kill Joe’s brother!
Hoss seemed to appear out of nowhere and stood beside Joe. “You okay, little brother?”
“I’m fine,” Joe replied.
Hoss helped Joe back up on his feet while Roy and the ranch hands walked up to the Cartwrights.
“I sure am glad to see you two!” Hoss said to both Joe and Pa.
Pa answered as he glanced back and forth at Hoss and Adam, “And we’re mighty glad to see you two!”
The Cartwrights momentarily hugged each other.
Then Hoss gazed down at Toby. “He was just a boy!”
“Unfortunately,” Roy added with sad dark eyes.
Joe informed, “His mother is back in Wyoming somewhere. She needs to know what happened.”
“I’ll take care of that, son.” Roy nodded. “I’ll take care of it.”
Joe sat down on his bed after he had changed into his nightshirt. Memories of Toby crossed his mind as he wondered how someone could look up to a father who had apparently thought nothing of killing several innocent people over the years. Then he noticed movement at his bedroom window. He looked over to see an owl looking in. Joe stood up and the owl fluttered off into the darkness of night. He decided then to go talk to Pa. Joe walked out to Pa’s bedroom door and found it closed. He knocked softly on the door.
“Come in!” Pa’s voice answered.
Joe opened the door and stepped inside. He noticed Pa sitting in bed with a book in his lap.
“You need to talk?” Pa asked.
Joe pulled a chair over next to the bed and sat down. “Yeah I do.”
“What’s troubling you, Joe?”
“I keep thinking about Toby. He was convinced his father was this wonderful man who could do no wrong. I tried to reason with him, but he wouldn’t listen.”
Silence followed for a few moments before Pa replied, “You talked to him, and that’s what counts. When all someone sees are muddy streets they think that’s all there is. When they finally lift their eyes and see the mountains they know there’s more.”
More silence followed. Then Joe remembered he had long wanted to tell Pa how he felt about him. Now was finally the right time.
“Pa, there’s something that I’ve been wanting to tell you for a very long time,” Joe said. “I think you’re the greatest father anyone could ever have. I know I haven’t always acted like it, but I’ve always looked up to you. You’re always there to listen when something is troubling us, and you’re always there to help whenever we’re not sure what we should do. I really do want to be like you in so many ways.”
Pa smiled with moist dark eyes. “Thank you, son. I’ve always tried to do right by you boys.”
“You always have, Pa. You always have.”
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