The Tinderbox




Part 1



Midsummer: and the normally lush, green pastures of the Ponderosa lay parched and bleached, all the grass withered and dead, the meadow-flowers shrivelled and the streams devoid of water, reduced to rocky channels traversing a desiccated land. The cattle wandered fruitlessly in search of sustenance, the flesh disappearing from their bones. There had been no rain for weeks.


Ben Cartwright surveyed the scene and felt a helplessness leach into his body. No matter what he did, it was not enough. No matter how many barrels of water were drawn from the well and transported to the grazing pastures, the cows were still thirsty and the wagonloads of fodder made little discernable impact on the starving animals. Supplies were starting to run low and Ben knew he could only to feed the herd for a few more days. He stared up at the cloudless blue sky, vainly searching for a sign, the familiar anvil-shaped clouds that heralded a rainstorm and then suppressed a curse.


“Pa?” Adam leant forward in his saddle and surveyed his father carefully. “What are we going to do?”


“Pray for rain,” Ben said. “It’s the only thing that can save us now.”


“And if it doesn’t rain?” Adam queried.


“Then we start to shoot the herd.” Ben’s tones were bleak, he hated to even contemplate such action but someone had to make the decision and it was as well to be prepared. “We do what has to be done and then we start again.” In the distance, he could see Joe unloading another barrel of water. Even from this distance, Ben could see that the young man looked exhausted, almost as if the spirit was draining out of him in sympathy with the land.


“Pa!” Joe’s clear voice rang out and he beckoned frantically. Ben touched his heels to Buck’s sides and thundered across the dry ground in answer to the urgent appeal.


Joe stood beside an animal that was clearly in distress. With a coat that stood stark and hard in the brilliant sunshine, the cow’s sides were heaving in an effort to breathe, while a dry, white tongue protruded uncomfortably from its mouth. When he gave it a comforting pat, the beast responded with a plaintive bellow, before collapsing to the ground, panting in distress.


“It could be heat-stroke,” Joe suggested. “Only I’ve never seen it this bad before.” He dropped to his knees beside the animal and ran his hand tenderly over its flank.


“Or it could be contagious,” Adam informed him. “We can’t risk any more disasters right now. These cows aren’t strong enough to withstand an outbreak of illness.” Drawing his gun, he looked briefly at his father for permission.


“Can’t we wait until Hoss has a look at her?” Joe pleaded.


“Do it,” Ben said bleakly. “Do it now. And let’s pray no more cows get sick.” It was the last thing they needed right now.


Supper was a quiet, subdued affair that evening, especially after Hoss confirmed that two cows in the southern pasture were suffering the same symptoms.


“We can’t just sit back and do nothing!” Joe looked around the table. “We can’t give up without a fight.”


Adam gave a thin smile. “Sometimes the only thing you can do is to acknowledge defeat and give in at the right time. That way, we might be save something, rather than losing everything.”


The pall of gloom that settled upon the Ponderosa was only made worse by the oppressive heat. Joe tossed and turned restlessly in his bed, unable to sleep, his mind haunted by the memory of the cow, lying still and motionless in the bleached grass. The room was stifling hot, without a breath of air and eventually he gave up the struggle, pulled on a pair of pants and crept downstairs, boots in hand.


It was cooler on the porch and Joe felt he could breath properly again. A golden harvest moon shone down on the yard and he revelled in the silky feel of the night air on his bare chest. It was exactly the sort of night that was perfect for a moonlit buggy-ride, Joe thought and then smiled as he imagined his father’s reaction to that suggestion!


As he walked across the yard, Joe was aware of a strange sound breaking though the stillness – a faint crackle, an occasional rushing roar, interspersed with an odd popping sound. It took a few moments for him to realise what was happening and then he scanned the surroundings with a growing sense of dread. Sure enough, off to the east he could see a dull, red glow.


“Fire!” he yelled, at the top of his lungs, while rushing into the barn, unfettering Cochise and vaulting onto his back in one smooth movement. There was no time to think about a saddle or reins.


As he rode out of the barn, Joe could see lights going on in the house and repeated his cries of “Fire! Fire!” before galloping towards the conflagration.




Part Two

By Rona




In the house, Ben, Adam and Hoss hurriedly dragged on clothes, snatched up sacks and threw bridles onto their horses, following Joe. “Why couldn’t he wait for us?” Ben worried as they rode into the darkness. He knew they were quite a few minutes behind Joe, perhaps as many as ten. Who knew what could happen in ten minutes with a big fire?


Meanwhile, Joe raced Cochise towards the fire. As he drew closer, he realised that the herd was in danger, too. For a moment, Joe dithered, uncertain as to his best move. But common sense prevailed. He couldn’t herd cows when he was controlling Cochise just with his hands and heels. His horse was perfectly safe to ride like that, but not around the herd, which could easily panic and stampede.


As he drew closer to the roaring flames, Joe could hear the uneasy bellows from the herd as they milled about. Joe knew that any moment, they could start a stampede. He faced a dilemma – should he try and get the herd moving away from the flames, or tackle the fire. He had snatched up a sack from the barn as he was leaving.


The bright flames danced over the grass and Joe opted for the fire. He rode Cochise as close to the fire as he could manage and then dropped from the pinto’s back.


There was still some water left in the bottom of the trough and Joe soaked the sack thoroughly before racing over and wielding it energetically. The heat was tremendous and Joe could feel innumerable little sparks land on his bare arms and chest, but he ignored them, beating the flames out, leaving the ground blackened and smoking.


A sudden breeze fanned the flames and an eddy of smoke wafted into Joe’s face and set him coughing. His eyes streamed and he backed away and suddenly, the flames were pursuing him!


Fleeing the conflagration, Joe could barely see where he was going. Next moment, he collided with a warm, hairy object that let out a started bellow. The herd had somehow got turned around and were much nearer the flames. Joe wiped his tearing eyes and waved his arms at the beasts. Slowly, they started to turn.


He had just got them moving when there was a shout from out of the darkness. “Joe! Joe, where are you?”


That was all it needed, the herd broke into a panicked run and Joe had to dodge the lethal horns, all the time hoping his family would hear the herd coming and get out of the way!


“Stampede!” he cried, but his voice was lost in all the sudden noise.


Figures came into sight, and Joe realised that his family were safe after all. Relieved, Joe left the herd to its own devices and returned his attention to the fire. Once more he dipped the sack into the water and set about tackling the flames again. Soon, he knew that Ben, Adam and Hoss would join him and together, they would surely beat the flames!


The blackened area that Joe had already put out was acting as a natural firebreak for that part, so Joe turned his attention to the grass beneath the withered trees. The smoke was still eddying in his face and Joe was coughing steadily now.


“Quick!” Ben urged his other sons needlessly. They slid down from the horses’ backs and hurried to join Joe’s fire fighting efforts. Ben cast a glance at his youngest son, but Joe seemed fine, despite a liberal coating of soot.


With the four of them working, the flames were soon dying back. Joe straightened wearily and wiped an arm across his face. The noise from the flames had died away and so it was that he heard the whoosh as the tree he was standing under ignited.


Startled, Joe glanced up as the flames devoured the tree in a matter of seconds. There was a sudden, ominous creaking and Joe saw a flaming branch falling towards him. Acting on pure instinct, Joe threw himself forwards and let out a banshee yell of pain as he landed on his chest on the still-hot ground. Before he could get his feet underneath him, the flaming branch crashed down, pinning his legs to the ground!


“Joe!” Ben stared in horrified disbelief as he saw his son pinned to the ground beneath a burning branch. “Joe!”



Part Three




He rushed forward with Hoss.

"Quick! Pull him out Pa!" Hoss bellowed . "Pull him out! "With no regard for his own safety, the large man lifted the end of the branch as Ben pulled Joe free. Was it too late?


Two days later:
"Mr. Cartwright. We are done digging those graves.," the lanky hand said as Ben answered his knock at the door.
"Thanks, Shorty. " Ben said wearily. His eyes were red.
"And Sheriff Coffee just rode up," Shorty Magee said to his boss. "He’s talking to the boys out by the corral. I suppose he didn’t want to disturb you."
Shorty nervously turned his hat in his hands.
Ben nodded wearily. "Its all right send him up. And thanks again ,Shorty.
Tell the boys we can start the burial in an hour."
A few minutes later, Roy Coffee came to the door. "Well Ben. How are you doing?" the sheriff asked awkwardly.
Ben shrugged. "As well as expected. We lost twenty acres of what had been prime grazing and two dozen cows. Adam is up checking on the rest of them. "
"Will he be back for the burial?"
"If he has time. Its not like the dead men meant anything to him," Ben said rubbing his eyes. "Can I offer you some breakfast or coffee? "
"That's true. They was just strangers. No coffee, just some cold water would be fine. Too hot for coffee," The sheriff wiped his sweaty face with his handkerchief. " How are Hoss and Joe doing?"
As if on cue, Doc Martin came down the massive oak stair case followed by Hoss Cartwright. The larger man had his right hand freshly bandaged. "Did I hear you offer some coffee? I can do with a cup, especially if Hop Sing made it and not you, Ben. "
The silver haired rancher smiled. "Hop Sing made it. He made some fresh breakfast too?"
The doctor nodded. He had been up well before dawn and seen two patients before he got to the Ponderosa. Jackie Carlton had a broken arm from a bar fight in the Silver Dollar and a old man Ormsby’s gout was flaring up again.
" What is it about that youngest boy of yours Ben? Little Joe is like that proverbial cat with nine lives," Roy Coffee observed.
Ben smiled "I think he used up a couple of them this week though. How is he?"
"Amazingly well, considering. " Doc Martin said. He shook his head in amazement.
"Thank goodness!" Ben smiled.
"Most of those burns don’t amount to anything much , just his feet. And even his feet aren’t too bad considering what he could have done to himself. It is only that the skin on your feet is so delicate and vulnerable to infection. I left some ointment up on his bureau. Not even a rib broken when that branch fell on him. " the doctor still couldn’t believe how lucky all three men were.


Ben’s only injury was a scrape on one knee and his eyes being irritated by the smoke and blowing dust of the fire.
"Just make sure Little Joe stays off his feet until the swelling is down and don’t let him put on any boots for at least a week. He was trying to negotiate with me that he could wear some of Hoss’s boots instead of his own as his feet were so swollen. What in heaven’s name was he thinking going out to fight a fire bare footed?" Doc Martin shook his head. "Let him sleep for awhile. I gave him some laudanum for the pain after I redressed his feet and Hoss’s hand."
"Don’t worry Doc. Joe will stay off them feet if we have to tie him in bed."
Hoss promised. "And he ain’t gonna get no boots of mine or Pa’s or Adam’s."
"Not even sox! Just make sure he soaks his feet four times each day in cool water. No sox!"
"It was a wonder that Pa and me pulled him out as quick as we did, " Hoss said holding up his bandaged hand. He was starving and was trying to figure how


he was going to manage his knife and fork to have some breakfast.
"He would have been burned to a crisp had you not," Doc Martin. "Like those other two you found up in that pasture burned out pasture. Have any idea who they were?"
"No, Paul. They weren’t any of my men. All the family and hands were accounted for," Ben said as they walked into the dining room.
"That is what I wanted to talk to you about," the sheriff said as Hop Sing brought in a bowl of oatmeal and set it down in front of Hoss.
"You eat and get better quick!" Hop Sing ordered Hoss.
"What were you saying,
Roy" Ben said as he sat at the head of the dining room table.
"Well, those burned fellers," the sheriff started. "One of them had this in his pocket. He pulled out a singed envelope and a singed letter. Carefully he handed them to Ben Cartwright ."Read them allowed. Maybe Hoss or the doc here have some ideas."
"Some of it is burned," Ben explained to the others.
"About half of it can’t be made out by me or Clem,"
Roy explained.
"Dear Jake, "Ben started to read. "I will arrive in
Virginia City by the end of the month. Don’t let on you know me if you see me. If we are going to get Ben Cartwright as we planned, we have to be.."
"Be what, Pa?" Hoss asked.
Ben shrugged, "The rest is burned off. This was in one of the men’s pockets?"
Roy nodded. " The bigger feller had it in his vest. The other one was to burned up . That’s all we got."
"What do you make of it?"


Part IV of the chain story
by Katja

"I know what I make of it." Without anyone knowing Adam had returned and had been reading over Pa's shoulder, trying to look for clues. "There's only one Jake who would want to get you and that's
Jake Harding. He's had it in for you ever since you won that last timber contract instead of him. I think we should have a talk with him. If he had anything to do with this fire..." His fists were clenched and his eyes had a fury in them that gave Paul chills. "I'll kill him. Joe could have died out there. Would have if it hadn't been for us, for Hoss. I'll kill him,

Ben put his hand on Adam's shoulder. "I feel the same, Adam, but your brother comes first now. And revenge never solved anything. If Jake had anything to do with this
Roy will arrest him, he will be brought before the judge and he will pay for this, by the hand of the law."

Adam shrugged Pa's hand off, still too much in a temper. "You know as well as I do that this half burned note doesn't prove a thing." He stomped off towards the door and took his gunbelt. "I'm going to do some looking around, looking for answers. And if I find I'm right.." He put his hat on and went through the door closing it with a bang.

"Adam!" Ben had gotten up and was about to follow his oldest son outside when a voice from upstairs stopped him dead in his tracks.

"Pa?" Joe was standing on top of the stairs, holding on to the railing with all of his might. From his voice it was obvious he was in pain, but the raised voices and arguing had penetrated his room
and he couldn't stay in his room.

With a few large steps Ben was up the stairs and lifted Joe in his arms. "Don't have to..carry me...can walk." But the fact that he just leaned his head against Ben's chest, letting himself carried despite
his words, proved to Ben that his youngest realized he needed to be in bed.

"You're going straight back to bed, young man." His voice was gentle, but firm and Joe simply nodded. "And you have breakfast and don't even think about following your brother, Erik."

The mention of his real name was enough to get Hoss to sit down and start eating. One brother disobeying doctor's orders was enough.
Besides, he was starving.

Ben nodded and then turned around and carried his youngest son back to his room, carefully putting him back in bed.

Joe simply lay back on the pillows, exhausted and in pain from those few steps he'd taken. Ben sat down on the bed wishing as always when he was tending to an injured son that his stubborn streak had not been passed on to his sons. They made for terrible patients.

Paul had followed Ben upstairs and checked Joe's feet again, shaking his head. "Tying him to the bed doesn't sound like such a bed idea. If he continues like this he'll never walk. If those feet get infected..." He let the threat hang in the air, but Ben knew exactly what he didn't want to say and as he looked at Joe's face he knew Joe realized it too.

"Ssshhhh it's going to be all right, Joe." He stroke the boy's hair and held onto his hand. "It's going to be all right. Just do what the doctor and I say and all will be all right."

Joe let himself be comforted by his father's soothing voice and as the laudanum started to do it's work he found himself drifting off into a restless sleep filled with images of fires, dead cows and
falling branches.

"I know the way out, Ben. You just stay here." Paul quietly left the room and went downstairs where Hop Sing had just served breakfast and coffee. He gratefully sank down in one of the chairs and followed Hoss' example. He too was starving and knew there were more house calls to make after this.

Upstairs Ben was watching his son fight demons in his sleep and he vowed they would get to the bottom of all of this.


Chain Story Chapter 5

By: Meira Bracha


Adam tore out of the ranch yard urging Sport into his fastest gallop.  But the oppressive heat and the sound of his beloved mount’s panting persuaded the still furious man to ease up the pace, which in turn gave him a chance to ponder the situation.  He appreciated the irony that he, the Cartwright who was always arguing for letting the law handle things, was taking up the roll of private avenger.  He tried telling himself that arson on the range during such a dry spell was a particularly heinous crime, and that he was just doing his civic duty in trying to find the man who had started the fire or paid others to do his dirty work.


But it isn’t easy to lie to oneself.  Adam knew that with Jake Harding as the prime suspect, his motive was not purely the pursuit of justice.  He had a history with Harding that dated back to when they were both ranchers’ newly-adult sons chafing under their fathers’ attempts to exert control over their lives. 


Adam was just back from four years of independence as a college student back east, and he was finding it difficult to readjust to his father’s authority.  He had made the difficult decision to return to the Ponderosa with the assumption that he would be able to implement what he had learned to modernize the running of the ranch and diversify its output from just cattle-raising to mining and timber production. 


But his father was having none of it.  He felt that the college education was a well-earned bonus for a son who had endured terrible hardship and heartache in his youth, but Ben believed that his own years of experience were more than a match for his young son’s book-acquired knowledge.


If his father’s attitude wasn’t hard enough to bear, the assumption by the men Adam had to work with, many of whom didn’t even know him, that he had gone soft and citified during his time away, was a constant thorn in his side.


So, while Adam continued to do his share of work around the ranch, he took to spending every spare moment away from the Ponderosa with a dubious group of associates, the most prominent of whom were the infamous Bonner brothers.  Jake Harding was also part of this assemblage. 


For the most part, they either hung around the makeshift saloons that had sprung up in all the mining camps, or raced their horses in rugged country and engaged in other acts of physical daring.  The group had quite a reputation for rowdiness, but other than a few accidentally trampled gardens and the like, they never did any real damage.


No damage, that is, until one night Harry Pederson was knocked cold in his tent and robbed of the two hundred forty-eight dollars and sixty-two cents that he had recently acquired as a result of a modest silver strike.  Adam, Jake and the Bonners had been seen in the vicinity the evening of the robbery, and the one witness claimed to have seen a man leaving Pederson’s tent wearing a yellow jacket. 


Adam was the only man known to have been wearing a yellow jacket that night in the camp.  Adam figured that someone had “borrowed” the jacket from where it hung on the back of his chair during a heated poker game.  He had been so annoyed at himself for letting himself lose all his cash that he left without it.  He was half-way back to the Ponderosa when he noticed the jacket was missing, but when he was spotted returning to the camp to retrieve it, instead of finding the jacket he found a group of self-appointed lawmen who seized him and tied him up.  They threatened to drag him behind a horse if he didn’t admit to being the thief and return Pederson’s money.


Unbeknownst to him, the Bonners had their own suspicions.  They found Harding and beat HIM until he confessed.  They then dragged him over to the tent where Adam was being held.  When Jake handed over the money, Adam was released.  Harding never fully recovered from the punishment the miners proceeded to give him that night.


This incident sobered Adam up in several ways.  His betrayal by Jake Harding did not extinguish Adam’s fundamentally generous nature, but it made him resolve to be more cautious and reserved in dealing with other people.  Having witnessed vigilante justice, Adam became a staunch advocate for the development of a local legal system similar to what he had seen back east.  He believed in letting the law handle criminal investigation and prosecution rather than leaving those tasks to the crime victims and their friends.  In addition, Adam developed an aversion to rowdiness which he tried unsuccessfully to pass on to his younger brothers, much to their dismay.  Joe was particularly resistant to his older brother’s counsel.


“Joe…,” Adam mused, and he smiled and shook his head thinking of one of his youngest brother’s latest escapades.  The smile turned to a frown as Adam recalled Joe’s current condition.  Thoughts of his brother’s suffering made Adam even more determined to find evidence against the man he was sure was responsible for the fire.


An hour later Adam was knocking on Jake Harding’s door.  Harding opened it, looked his guest up and down, and greeted him with exaggerated politeness.  “To what do I owe the honor of a visit from the high-and-mighty Adam Cartwright?  I’d a’ thought you’d be too busy cleanin’ up after that Ponderosa fire to be payin’ social calls on old friends.”


Adam didn’t move a muscle in his face.  “Is that what we are, Jake?  Old friends?”



“You got a better way of describin’ us, Cartwright?”


“Not in words I choose to utter,” replied Adam, through his teeth.


“So what do you want?  Make it quick.  I got a lot to do.  Ain’t got no hired hands to do MY ranch work.”


Adam made sure his right hand was covering his holster as he replied.  “That’s just what I thought.  No hired hands.  So why are there three horses in your barn?”


Harding snorted.  “This is a ranch!  I got more than one horse.  That ain’t so startlin’.”


Adam continued.  “And how come two of those horses have their legs bandaged?”


“They got caught in a thorny thicket and got real scratched up,” came the quick reply.


Adam knew he had him.  “So you, a lone rancher, rode one horse into a thorny thicket, brought it back to your barn and tended to it, then rode ANOTHER horse out into the same thicket?”


Adam didn’t wait for an answer.  He pulled out his gun and continued.  “Here’s what I think happened.  You hired two men to set a fire on the Ponderosa.  Only they got caught in the fire and died.  You found their injured horses and brought them back to your barn.”


Jake snarled, “That’s some story.  You can’t prove any of it!”


“Maybe not,” Adam answered, “but you and I are going to ride into Virginia City and see what Sheriff Coffee has to say.”


A satisfied smile appeared on Jake’s face.  Adam heard a woman’s voice at the same time as he felt a rifle barrel pushed hard against the back of his neck.


“My son ain’t goin’ nowhere with you, Adam Cartwright.  Drop yer gun!”



Part 6

It was morning at the Ponderosa and breakfast was being eaten by Ben and Hoss at the table. Hoss eyes kelp wondering toward the door and thoughts of what could have happened with Adam not leaving him alone.

"Pa," he finally spoke up. "I think I should go after Adam. It's been all night and he still ain't back. I've got a bad feeling that something is wrong." Hoss studied his father's face and waited for a

Ben looked up from his coffee cup and nodded, "I was thinking about going after him myself this morning, but one of us needs to stay here with your brother."

"Then let me go, Joe would rather it be you here with him anyway."
Getting to his feet, Hoss headed for the door stopping to get his hat and gun. "I'll be real careful." He added knowing what his father was going to say.

Getting to his feet as well, Ben walked over to his son. "Take care and find your brother. If you think you are going to need help in anyway don't hesitate to get me or got to
Virginia City and get Roy."

"I will," Hoss gave his father a quick smile before leaving the house and heading for the barn to mount up his horse.


At the Harding Ranch, Adam sat in a corner of one of the room stiff from being tied hand and feet and left sitting on the cold floor. He mentally berated himself for being so stupid as to come here alone and even more for doing something that he hardly ever did, go off half cocked, something that his youngest brother usually did.

His thoughts went to his brother and wondered how he was holding up.  He knew that Joe was in a lot of pain the day before and from experience from burns himself he knew how bad they could hurt the next day. He wanted to take back the night before in wanted more to have away out of this mess sooner rather than later. He had tried over and over until his wiste bleed to get them untied, but Harding knew that he was doing and the binds that held him were very tight.

Hearing someone outside of the room he was in he waited to see what this day was going to bring him. Finally the door opened and Jake Harding entered with a plate of food in his hands.

"It's against my better judgment to feed you, but my pa said that I had to. Eat while you can, because it just might be the last meal that you get."

"Are you going to untie my hands so that I can eat?" Adam asked his anger toward the man growing more and more by the minute.

Thinking for a minute Jake nodded pulling his gun out first then untying his prisoner's hands. You try anything I'll shoot first and ask questions later."

Adam at his breakfast and soon found his hands tied again. He watched Harding leave the room and heard the key being turned in the door locking him in again. It wasn't more than half an hour later
that he heard a horse enter the yard and heard voices coming from down stairs. Listening carefully he noticed that once of the voices was coming from his brother Hoss.

"Hoss!!! Hoss!!!" He shouted out and waited to see what would happen and hoped that his brother heard him.


Part Seven

By Lori H.


Not waiting to see if Hoss had heard his cries for help, Adam rolled onto his side then awkwardly made his way toward the only window in the small room.  With much effort, he finally managed to stand up.  The single pane of glass was cloudy and coated with a layer of oily dirt and cobwebs.  Adam couldn=t see a thing.  He loudly called out to Hoss again, a desperate ring to his voice.   Frantically, his eyes searched the small room for something he could use to break the window.

The room was bare except for a pile of old rags.  Adam swore and gritted his teeth.  He had no choice but to use his shoulder to smash the glass.  Hopefully, he wouldn=t get himself cut up too badly.  He was willing to suffer a few cuts if it meant his freedom. 

Adam could still hear Hoss=s voice outside and it sounded like he was about to leave.  He wished his feet were not tied, it would have made it a lot easier to get a running start before he slammed his shoulder into the pane of glass. 

Quickly, he positioned himself sideways beside the window.  Holding his breath, he turned his head away from the window and drove his shoulder toward the glass with all his might.  The aged glass and the weathered frame groaned in protest.  AAgain!@Adam thought as he smashed his shoulder into the window for the second time.  This time the glass broke, jagged shards dropping onto the roof below and onto the floor in the room.

Adam=s shoulder and collarbone stung from the impact as well as a piece of glass which had imbedded itself in his arm, just below the shoulder socket.  Ignoring the pain and the warm trickle of blood crawling down his arm, Adam shouted out the window.  AHoss!  Hoss! It=s me, Adam! Help....!      

Suddenly, the door to the room burst open.  Adam didn=t hear it; he too was focused on getting his brother=s attention.  He spun around when he sensed someone standing behind him.

A gruff voice shouted,  AShut yer mouth!@ as the butt end of a rifle slammed into the side of his face.  The hard wood glanced off his cheekbone, breaking the skin and viciously snapping his head to the side.  His knees buckled and he dropped to the floor.  Adam lay still for a moment, barely conscious, as a hot searing pain blazed through his face and jaw.  A veil of darkness rippled before his eyes, threatening to overwhelm him.  He rolled onto his back and moaned softly, his bound hands cupping the injured side of his face. 


Outside, Hoss suddenly cocked his head and held up a hand to silence Jake.  He could have sworn he heard glass shatter and Adam=s voice calling for help.  He frowned and drew his gun.  Distrustful of Jake, he slowly backed off the dilapidated porch, his blue eyes warily scanning his surroundings.


Inside the house, Adam struggled to clear his cloudy mind.  Through the haze, he saw a pair of legs and the barrel of a shotgun coming toward him.  Fearing for his life, he instinctively, rolled to the side and kicked out his feet at his assailant

The force from Adam=s boots caused Willard, Jake=s pa, to stumble and drop the shotgun, causing the weapon to discharge.

Jake stiffened when he heard Adam=s voice calling out to his brother.  When he saw the suspicious look on Hoss=s face, he quickly reached behind the door and grabbed his rifle.

The blast upstairs from the shotgun galvanized Jake into action.  He raised his rifle to his shoulder and took aim at Hoss. 

Hoss=s guardian angel must have been looking out for him, for Hoss suddenly looked back at the house.  When he saw the rifle aimed at him, he dove to the side and fired his weapon at Jake. 

Hoss=s bullet went wide, barely missing Jake as it buried itself in the ancient rotted wood of the door frame.  

The bullet from Jake=s rifle would have killed Hoss if he hadn=t moved when he did.  Instead, the bullet ripped through Hoss=s shirt, creasing the rock-solid muscle in his upper arm.

More gunfire erupted from the house, kicking up small clouds of dirt all around Hoss as he ran for cover behind a watering trough.

Hoss lay still for a moment, breathing heavy, his face pinched in a grimace.  He glanced down at his left arm to see how bad he had been hit.  Although it stung like hell, he was relieved to see the wound wasn=t too serious.

His arm forgotten for the time being, Hoss chanced a peak around the edge of the trough.  A bullet whizzed by, just inches from his head. 

ADadburnit!@ he said aloud. ALooks like they=ve got me pinned down good.@

Staying low, Hoss turned himself around and scrambled to the other end of the watering trough so he could look for his horse.  Chubb was gone, spooked when hot lead began flying through the air.   

ADadburn, horse!@ Hoss swore, again.. AGuess I=ll have to figure another way outta here.@  He didn=t have to ponder his dilemma for too long because suddenly he heard a voice behind him.  ADrop yer gun and stand up real slow like!@ 

Hoss loosened his grip on his revolver and let it fall from his hand.  Without turning around, he slowly climbed to his feet.  He felt a sharp poke in the back from a rifle barrel as the voice issued another command.   AGit yer hands in the air, right now or I=ll fill yer hide so full of holes it wouldn=t hold hay!@

Hoss obeyed but was only able to raise his right arm, his wounded left arm remained down and by his side.   

The rifle barrel jabbed him in the back again.  AI said both hands!@

The voiced sounded female so Hoss replied, AI can=t raise my left arm, ma=am.  I=ve been shot.@

Jake=s ma mulled over Hoss=s words then decided one arm up was good enough.  AGit into the house, boy.  I=ll see if=n I can fix ya up.@

Hoss winced from the stinging pain in his arm.  AThank you, ma=am.@


Jake raced upstairs, rifle at the ready, his booted feet making a hollow pounding sound on the stairs.  Afraid his pa may have shot Adam, he burst into the room where they were holding Adam captive.  Expecting the worst, he was relieved when he saw Adam lying on the floor, vainly trying to protect himself from the vicious beating being administered by Willard Harding.

AYou try anything like that again, boy and I swear I=ll kill ya fur sure!@ yelled Jake=s pa.

AStop it, Pa!@ shouted Jake, peeling his father off of Adam and flinging him across the room. AYou=re gonna kill him and then what will we do?  I need him alive!@

Willard climbed to his feet and glared at his son.  Without saying a word, he stomped over to where his shotgun had fallen on the floor, picked it up, then stormed down the stairs.




  by:  Blue Velvet
 The old woman held her rifle against Hoss' broad, straight back and nudged him hard with it.
 "Best get inside, big boy, if you know what's good for you. And don't try anything or I'll surely blow your arm off!"
 She made a big mistake by picking up the revolver from the ground and tucking it into the waistband of her apron. Hoss stepped inside the shack but turned around sharply. He loomed over the old woman casting a long, black shadow on the wall. His clear, blue eyes went cold as steel; his jaw clenched taut.
 " My Pa taught me to be respectful of ladies and never raise my hand against them..."
The woman poked Hoss' creased left arm with the rifle staring up at his hardened face.
 "...but there's always a first time for everything , I'd be much obliged, ma'am, if you'll just hand me those guns and take a seat somewhere. You and your boy are no threat to me. I can throw you both into the next county.

 And if you don't believe I won't take you, just be foolish enough not to do as I say." Hoss' hefty arms bulged as he tensed his solid biceps. The rifle  pressed against his flesh jerked out of the woman's hands. "Now, just hand over those guns and sit a spell."  his voice became a low, rasping growl.

 "Jake, come down here, son!" the woman cried as she backed away from the big man.

Upstairs there were scuffling sounds.
 "Hoss! Hoss! Be careful!" Adam's warning was silenced by Willard's hands.

Jake ran down the steps with his weapon raised at the ready. Hoss jumped in front of him blocking his path. He aimed squarely at Jake's head.
"Slow and easy, boy," he hissed "over there." Hoss squeezed the trigger of the
Enfield. "We can do this one of two ways; easy like or you can wake up with a spade in your face and break your mama's heart.
Woman, tear that apron in strips and be quick about it!"
Hoss held his weapon steady against Harding and pushed him forcibly towards the boy's mother.

In the filthy room above Willard held his fist against Adam's mouth strangling him nearly breathless. The older Harding lurked like a tarantula for its prey; the floorboards creaked hauntingly.

Hoss tied the old woman and her son together with the torn strips hastily.

"You won't get out of here alive, fat man, " Jake grinned mockingly "we'll see to that for sure."

 Hoss met the woman and boy's jeering glares with cool, steady contempt.
"Not long ago a man went bear hunting with me and we came upon this big ole grizzly, sure enough. Now this feller shot the grizzly no less than five times and the bear just kept coming and coming and coming and killed the man with one swipe although that bear was shot a dozen times...I'm exactly like that grizzly." Hoss tightened the stays that bound mother and son together. Looking at them
dead on Hoss dropped his chin "Nothing will stop me from getting to my brother! Nothing!"
That old woman and Jake Harding were going nowhere.

Hoss held his rifle ready to fire as he bound up the steps three at a time, nearly falling through the rotten floor.

The door slammed open where Willard crouched ready to spring spiderlike from a web. Hoss fired a round hitting Harding in the neck.
Willard fell backwards, flailing his arms as he stumbled and fell through the broken window.
 "Adam," Hoss ran towards his brother and fell to his knees next to him. He lifted Adam's bloodied head gingerly.
 "Adam!" Hoss patted his swollen face.
 The glass in his brother's arm made Hoss gasp audibly.
  "Damn," he clenched his jaw. Hoss' mind raced, his heart skipped a beat.
  "Adam, you'll have to stay still. If I try to take the glass out of your arm it'll tear you to shreds and you'll lose your arm. I can't do much to help you but I'll try anything. Can you hold on to me?"
  "yes" moaned Adam
  "I need to get you to the kitchen to cauterize that wound."
  The elder Cartwright brother was limp as the big man gently lifted his brother to his feet. Slowly they crept down stairs.
  Old woman Harding and her son jumped in their seats, straining against the ties that bound them.
  "Cartwright, you'll die for this!" she screamed "You're dead men" Jake spat
  Hoss laid his brother tenderly on the kitchen table. He rushed to the sink and flooded a pot with water. Frantically he rumaged for a tool. He found a knife and heated it red hot.
  His right hand quivering as he approached Adam he said sadly,
  "Adam, I'm sorry. This is gonna hurt like a mother giving birth." "Do it" Adam rasped faintly. Hoss drew a deep breath as he raised the red hot knife. "Lord, help me"

Blue Velvet


Chapter Nine


Adam closed his eyes and gritted his teeth against the pain he knew was certain to come, his good hand clenched tight between his knees, which were shaking uncontrollably.

"Do it, Hoss! Just do it!" he implored. What was taking so long? Didn't his brother know this dreadful anticipation was almost more than he could bear? Every muscle in his body was trembling violently, making him shake uncontrollably. He just hoped Hoss had a steady hand.

There was a sudden crash and Adam's eyes flew open to discover his brother lying prostrate on the floor, like a mighty oak felled in a storm. Blood was oozing from a wound to his skull, while Jake Harding stood wielding a shovel, with a triumphant grin on his face.

"Darn stupid thing to do, turning your back on a man like that!" he said smugly, kicking Hoss cruelly in the ribs. He was out cold, Adam realised, for despite the force of the blows, his brother did not move at all.

"Thinks he's so big and so smart and he literally ties me up with my Ma's apron strings!" Jake's face contorted in anger at the memory.

The old woman patted him gently on the shoulder. "Never even crossed his mind that thin cotton was no match for my boy, did it? And he's idiot enough to get me to tear the strips up myself - never figured I'd put rips into them did he? And the stupid creature never even thought to check and see I didn't have no weapon on me neither!"

She pulled out a wicked looking knife and spat reflectively on the blade, before grabbing the hair at the nape of Adam's neck and pulling his head back so that his throat was exposed. Running the blade slowly along his flesh, she continued to taunt her captive.

"Your brother rushes in here, all fired-up and reckons he's gonna act the hero, does he? More fool him. He's just signed his death warrant and yours along with. Some hero he is."

Jake kicked out at Hoss again. "An' he told us he was like a grizzly bear!!" His laughter rang around the room and Adam cringed at the maniacal quality.

"Well, ain't that big old grizzly caught in my trap now!" Jake cackled wildly and Adam realised the man was totally deranged, far beyonds the bounds of sanity.

Jake bent down, and opened up a trapdoor in the floor, then started to pull and push Hoss towards the chasm that lurked darkly below. He panted with the effort, the veins in his neck standing out and his face turning scarlet. For a moment, Adam watched in horror as his brother's body teetered on the edge, then with a final, huge effort, Jake thrust Hoss it the pit below. There was a hollow thunk and then silence.

"Seein' as how he's such a big fellow, it might take him a couple of months to starve to death!" he jibed, pulling the trapdoor back into place. "Thanks to big boy there, your Pa's gonna lose two sons instead of one!"

Held captive by the sharp blade pressing against his throat, Adam watched as Jake advanced towards him, certain that he was about to die.


"We have to do something!" Joe argued, gritting his teeth and forcing himself to stand upright. The pain in his feet was - fierce, but bearable. It wasn't as bad as broken bone, although it came close. "I can ride - I'll be fine."

"You're in no fit state to do anything!" Ben said firmly, beside himself with worry. What was happening to Adam and Hoss?

"I'm not staying here when my brothers need my help! I'll find them if it's the last thing I do!" Joe vowed. "We have to go, Pa - they need us.please?"

Despite his better judgement, Ben let himself be convinced. They rode out of the Ponderosa at a gallop, hearts afire with worry.


Part 10



“Why are you doing this?” Adam gasped, forcing the words out past the blade at his throat.


“Because we can!” Jake snarled. “Its because of you that we ain’t been able to make a go of the ranch! You high and mighty Cartwrights! Well you’re going to pay!”


“The law will get you,” Adam warned. “Roy Coffee knows that we suspect you.”


“Roy Coffee! That old goat!” scoffed Jake. They all laughed and Adam winced as the sound dragged across his stretched nerves. “Like he can do anything! He’s past it!”


“One way or another, you’ll pay!” Adam vowed and winced as he felt the tip of the knife pierce his throat.


“One more word and this will go in all the way,” Jake promised.


Adam kept silent. He hoped that his father was on the way to rescue him. He hoped that Hoss wasn’t too badly hurt.




“How’re you doing?” Ben asked, as they paused to check the layout of the Harding place. They didn’t want to go racing in heedlessly.


“I’m fine,” Joe replied, although the pain from his feet was dreadful. He was glad he’d found a pair of Adam’s old boots that he could squeeze his feet into. Hoss’ had been far too big, even with the bandages. “What’s our next move?”


“Well, we can hardly go down and knock on the door, can we?” Ben sighed.


“I guess not,” Joe admitted, although he hadn’t thought of knocking on the door. He had just planned on opening it up and charging in. “So what are we going to do?”


“Wait patiently for Roy to arrive,” Ben replied. “I sent for him.”


“We can’t wait that long!” Joe cried. “Adam’s been missing since yesterday and Hoss hasn’t come back, either! Pa, they’re in trouble and we’ve got to do something!”


Looking at Joe’s flushed, indignant face, Ben knew his son was right. “We can’t go any closer on the horses,” Ben mused aloud. He cast Joe another glance.


“I can walk perfectly well,” Joe replied, as Ben had known he would. “Honest, Pa, my feet are fine!” He crossed his fingers behind his back. His brothers were in trouble and Joe had to help them, whatever the consequences to his feet. He would deal with that later. “Let’s go.”


“Hold on!” Ben cautioned. “We need to make sure we know exactly what we’re going to do. Listen.” He began to outline his plan.




Down in the cellar, Hoss gradually began to come around. He couldn’t think what had happened to him and for a few moments, he thought he had gone blind. His eyes were open, yet all he could see was profound darkness.


Once he realised where he probably was, Hoss drew in a deep calming breath. He didn’t like the dark. He never had; as a child, he had had to have a candle burning each night. He had grown out of it, by and large, but he avoided situations were he was alone in darkness wherever possible.


“Don’t panic,” he chided himself. “That ain’t gonna help.” He rubbed his head and winced at the pain. “I gotta try an’ find a way outa here.” He began to feel around the confines of his prison.




Creeping up to the house, every step was agony for Joe, but he discounted the pain. He had to save his brothers! Flattening himself against the side of the house, Joe peered cautiously through the window.


What he saw there made him completely forget Pa’s plan and he jumped to his feet…


Part Eleven


By: Karen


Gun in hand; Joe went through the front door seeing at once Jake Harding with a knife just inches away from his brother’s throat. “Drop the gun or you’re a dead man.” He ordered.


Putting the knife closer to his captive, “I may die, but not before I kill your brother, Cartwright!”


Joe took a step toward the man that threatened to take the life out of his brother. “You don’t want to do that. Turn yourself in before anyone else is hurt.” He tried to reason.


A laugh came from the other man as he took his other hand down toward Adam’s head and started pulling the eldest son of Ben Cartwright up by the hair. “He thinks I should give myself up,” he said with yet another laugh.


Adam turned pain filled eyes to his brother and knew that his father had to be around somewhere. He hoped that Joe hadn’t taking off without Ben knowing. “He’s…right”


Joe saw the glass in his brother arm and knew that something had to be done before Jake did more damage than what had already been done. “Leave him alone. I’ll put my gun away and you can do what you will with me.”


“No,” his brother whispered. What little strength that he had left was quickly leaving him.


Jack looked down first at Adam and then up at Joe, “This is touching. You two are willing to die for one another.” He nodded over to the youngest Cartwright. “Drop the gun and come over here and I will let him go…or better yet. Bring the gun to me and I will let him go. I think a gun will replace this knife nicely.


Adam had searched the room wondering where the older Harding had gone. He hadn’t seen her for quite a few minutes.




Ben saw the woman come out of the house through a back door and head over to the well. Slowly he headed to where she stood, lowing the water bucket into the deep hole. Pointing his gun at her he called out, “Where are my son’s?”


She turned to see the man that she had grown to hate, “Well…well. What have we got here? If it isn’t Ben Cartwright. What are you going to do, shoot an unarmed woman?”


Ben lowered his pistol a bit, “No, I’m not going to shoot you. I do however; want to know where my sons are.”


“As good as dead,” she coldly said with great joy. “And there is nothing you can do about it.”


Ben stared at the woman, “You had better hope that that isn’t true.”


“JAKE!” she bellowed warning her son of the danger that now lurked on their homestead.




Joe had just given over his gun as he head the older woman shout Jakes name. He watched as the man looked away for only a moment. That was all the distraction that Joe needed. He threw a quick punch at the man and watched as Jake fell to the side at the same time dropping Adam as he did so.


Joe reached out to catch his older brother worried that the glass in his arm might cause more harm. He didn’t notice when Jake had started to get up again. As soon as Joe had his brother on the floor he turned to see the Jake going for the gun that had fallen to the floor after he had been struck.


Seeing the move Joe made a lunge for Jake and in that split second he found that he was too late, for Jake had gotten his hand on the gun. Now the real fight began as Jake tried to use the gun again Joe and Joe tried to get the gun away from Jake.


From where he laid on the floor Adam tried to get up, but found that he was just too tired to do so. As he started to sink into the darkness he heard the gun go off.




The Tinderbox – Conclusion

By Puchi Ann


            Hearing Mrs. Harding shout her son’s name, Ben clapped a hand over her mouth.  He chided himself for not doing so sooner.  Now it was too late.  Now his plan to surprise those he was convinced held at least one of his sons was ruined.  He had no time for self-recrimination, however, for Mrs. Harding struggled in his grasp, heels and elbows flying, kicking, jabbing.  Ben still couldn’t bring himself to do more than restrain the gray-haired woman and prevent her crying out again, on the off chance that Jake hadn’t heard her the first time.  He had his hands full with the feisty woman.

            Jake, of course, had heard his mother’s warning, but it had given him no advantage.  Quite the contrary, and the free-for-all that had ensued from his momentary distraction had led, instead, to his position now, inside a burning building with two disabled, but undefeated opponents.  Jake still felt he held the upper hand as he pointed the revolver squarely between Joe’s eyes.

            A slight grin lifted one side of Joe’s mouth.  “You never were any good at arithmetic, were you, Jake?”

            “Shut up!” Jake bellowed.

            “It’s a simple equation, Jake,” Joe taunted.  “Even you can work it.  Six minus six equals zero.”

            Simple equation or not, Jake didn’t understand what Joe was saying.  Nor did the real mathematician of the family, though Adam’s brain, numbed by pain and bewildered by the smoky haze, wasn’t thinking of math at that moment.  Only one thought penetrated the fog: Joe was in danger; Joe needed him.  He pulled himself back from the edge of unconsciousness, lurched to his feet and charged the man holding a gun on his little brother.  He hit Jake just below the hips, screaming out in agony as his injured shoulder absorbed the jar of impact.  He crumpled to the floor, and the dark void claimed him once more.

            The force of Adam’s blow knocked Jake to one side and spoiled his aim just as he squeezed the trigger.  A look of complete confusion then swept his face when the empty gun replied with a click and not a bang.  Even now he hadn’t figured out that six bullets minus six shots equaled no ammunition left.

            Ordinarily, Joe might have laughed at the bad man’s befuddlement, but having seen his already injured brother collapse again, he felt nothing but fury for the man who had caused all the pain.  With grim determination and ignoring the protest of the pinched skin across his back where the burning branch had singed him days earlier, he sent a powerful left fist smashing into Jake’s jaw.  Jake stumbled backward, and Joe hit him again.

            Jake careened away, falling against the table, now engulfed in flames.  They nibbled hungrily at his shirt.  With a wild bellow of panic and pain, he reeled from side to side of the room as the flames feasted on his filthy flesh.

            “Drop and roll!” Joe yelled.  When Jake didn’t, Joe almost instinctively moved to help a fellow creature in jeopardy of his life, but stopped short.  Another man was even more helpless in that inferno.  His first duty lay there.  As the flames licked at Adam’s boot heels, Joe limped hastily to his brother’s side, grabbed him under the arms and began to drag him, step by agonizing step, toward the door.

            Outside, two parents watched in horror as flames devoured the frame house.  Ben’s hand dropped from Mrs. Harding’s mouth, and she screamed out her son’s name again, in terror this time.  She struggled and broke free of Ben’s slackened grip and rushed for the door.

            Ben charged after her.

“Let me go!” she yelled as he grabbed her by both elbows.

            “You can’t go in there!” he shouted.  “I’ll get them!”  He shoved her to one side and rushed for the house himself, with no more sense than she had shown, but with the same instinct of a parent to protect its young.  He almost collided with two of his sons in the doorway and quickly helped Joe haul Adam outside.  Stretching Adam out on the hard, cracked earth, Ben grasped his other son by both shoulders.  “Where’s Hoss?” he demanded imperatively.

            Coughing harshly from the smoke, Joe shook his head.  “Didn’t see him,” he finally managed to croak.

            Meantime, Mrs. Harding had ripped off her skirt and dashed into the house to beat at the flames, in an attempt to reach her boy.  Equally determined to reach his own, though he still wasn’t sure Hoss was in there, Ben rushed back into the house.  He saw a blackened body back in a corner and hurried toward it.  The flames belligerently beat him back.  Was it Hoss?  Mrs. Harding obviously didn’t think so.  She would never have been fighting so vigorously to save his son; she must think it was Jake.  But it didn’t matter.  Whoever that body had once belonged to, its spirit was no longer housed inside.  “It’s too late,” Ben shouted as he grabbed the woman and tried to wrestle her outside.

            She fought him again, frantic to reach her son, and old woman or not, Ben couldn’t have held her back by himself.  Suddenly, though, there were arms pulling both him and her out of the building, a dozen feet rushing past to throw buckets of water on the blaze.  The posse had finally arrived.  “We got it, Ben,” Roy Coffee yelled above the commotion.  “See to your boys.”

            His boys.  Yes, he needed to see to his boys.  Ben stumbled back toward his sons, two of them at least.  He raised a sooty palm to his temple.  Two sons.  But he had three.  Or had had three.  How many did he have now?  He turned back toward the smoking hulk and shook his head.  If Hoss was in there, he was gone, but Ben didn’t know for certain that his middle son had ever come to this ranch.  He’d gone searching for his older brother, but had he come here?  Ben didn’t know, but clung to the hope, slim as it might be, that Hoss had gone elsewhere to search for Adam.  He moved quickly to the two sons who were there and in need of his care.


            Cool . . . moist . . . refreshing.  Adam’s dry tongue flicked toward the wet cloth caressing his cheeks.  “He’s coming around,” he heard someone say.  A familiar voice, but he couldn’t quite place it.

            “Here, son, drink this.”  The rim of a canteen touched his lips, and he gulped the lukewarm liquid.

            “Easy, that’s enough for now.”  The canteen was pulled away.  To search for it, Adam opened his eyes and saw his father’s face bending over him.  “Pa,” he croaked through a raw throat.

            “Yes, it’s Pa.  You’re all right, son.”  Ben leaned closer, peering intently into his eldest son’s dazed hazel eyes.  “Son, where’s your brother?” he asked urgently, chiding himself for pushing Adam so soon, but he had to know.

            His brother?  Panic flashed across Adam’s face as the last image he’d seen burst through his brain: his youngest brother, locked in Jake Harding’s gun sight.  Had Harding shot him?   Had Joe not made it out?  As Adam rose on his elbows, though, he saw Little Joe, just to Pa’s left, reaching out a restraining hand.  Joe was all right, then.  He looked beyond his brother, saw the charred timbers of the house and suddenly remembered he’d had another companion in that place of pain.  “Hoss,” he whispered, barely audible.  “Hoss—inside.”  He hugged his aching lungs as a paroxysm of coughing shook a frame weakened by blood loss and shock.

            Anguish he hadn’t felt since the loss of his third wife surged through every cell of Ben’s body—every vein, every artery, every throbbing nerve.  Hoss had been inside then; he’d given up too soon.  Yet even as the guilty thought tormented his heart, Ben knew he’d had no choice, no more than had Mrs. Harding, the shrieking woman now in custody of the sheriff.  Two sons he’d been able to save; the third was beyond his help.

            Little Joe buried his face in his ashy hands.  He’d failed.  Maybe if he hadn’t rushed in so soon, if he’d just waited for Pa, instead of trying to handle it on his own, Hoss might still be alive.  “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  He remembered those words from a Bible story he’d learned as a child.  Keeper?  No, he’d been no keeper to Hoss; like Cain of old, he’d been his brother’s killer.  A heart-rending sob broke from his tortured throat, and he felt his father’s comforting arm come around him.

            The spell of coughing abated, and Adam was able to choke out a few more words.  “Inside—trapdoor—underground.”  Air supply expended, he began coughing uncontrollably again.

            Hope sparking in their eyes, Ben and Little Joe exchanged a meaningful glance and rose to their feet simultaneously, but  Ben quickly pushed Joe down.  That boy had no business abusing his feet any further, especially not on hot ash.  “Stay with Adam,” he ordered firmly.

            Joe was torn, but seeing Adam in such distress, he knelt beside him and reached for the canteen.

            Ben raced toward the charred hulk, shouting at Roy Coffee as he ran.  “Hoss—still inside!”

            Thinking his friend had gone mad from grief, Roy jogged after him, but Ben was already inside, searching frantically.  “Ben, come back outside,” Roy urged gently.  Ain’t nobody here.”

            Ben rounded on him.  “Hoss is here,” he insisted.  His eyes dropped to the floor, blackened, but basically intact.  “There’s a trapdoor . . . somewhere.”  He kicked aside the ashes of the table and chairs, and his foot clunked against a metal handle.  “Here!”  He grabbed it, oblivious to the heat of the metal against his bare palm, and jerked the door upward.  With an agility more characteristic of his youngest son, he dropped through the opening, scrambled to his feet and began searching the darkness.  There!  In the back corner . . . an inert bulk.  “Hoss!” he cried . . . but the big man didn’t move, didn’t respond.


            The downstairs guest room of the sprawling ranch house was crowded with patients, but Dr. Martin knew better than to argue with Cartwrights.  No stubborner creatures had ever been created, and if they were determined to stay together—and they clearly were—no power could separate them.  A good thing, the doctor concluded, for that same determination to stay together was, no doubt, the reason he was treating four patients . . . not three or two or one . . . or none.

            They were all affected, to varying degrees, by smoke inhalation, of course, but that would work its way out of their lungs in time.  As for other injuries, Adam had fared the worst, overall, primarily from the loss of blood.  His shoulder and collarbone were badly injured, and his body bruised practically top to toe from the vicious beating by Willard Harding.  The knife prick in his neck hadn’t done much damage, but the cut in his arm was infected and raising a fever.  That boy would be in bed for a while.  Or should be, at least.

            As should the boy sharing the big bed with him.  Dr. Martin shook his head.  He’d thought he had made it clear the first time that Little Joe was to stay off his feet.  Being a Cartwright—the most stubborn of the bunch, in fact—he hadn’t, and exactly what the doctor had predicted had happened.  The blisters had broken open and become infected.  Joe’s fever was higher than Adam’s, but didn’t seem dangerous.  He’d recover.  Despite his best attempt to cripple himself, the young fool would walk again.

            Dr. Martin glanced toward the chaise, brought in for Hoss to sleep on.  He’d been most worried about that boy when he first saw him.  Gradually deprived of oxygen while the house burned above him, Hoss had lost consciousness, and they’d been a long time rousing him.  The shovel blow he’d taken to the head had been partially responsible for that, and the big man still suffered from concussion.  “Keep him flat,” the doctor ordered, fixing a stern glance on Ben Cartwright, who had gotten off lightest with just a mild burn across the palm of his hand.  “Keep them all flat!”

            “If I can,” Ben said with a weary and, if truth be told, an indulgent smile.

            “I keep them flat,” vowed a determined voice behind the doctor.

Turning, Dr. Martin saw Hop Sing, standing with crossed arms and unyielding visage in the doorway.  No indulgence there and no lack of strength.  With Hop Sing standing guard, the Cartwrights would be lucky to lift a finger, much less a foot from their beds.  “I’ll leave them in your capable hands then, Hop Sing,” he announced loudly.  “I know I can trust you.”  He could, too.  Hop Sing, being a Cartwright himself, shared the familial stubbornness, but in this case it would work for the doctor, not against him.


            Plink . . . plunk . . . plop.  The sound seemed familiar, but not having heard it in a long time, a drowsy Ben did not at first recognize the soft pattering on the windowpane.  He rose slowly from his chair between the chaise and the bed and drew back the drapes.  In the fading twilight he could just make out the splatter of droplets on the glass.

            Behind him, Little Joe sat up abruptly.  “Hey, it’s raining!”  He swung his right leg over the side of the bed, preparing to join his father at the window.

            “You stay flat!” roared the ever-vigilant Hop Sing.

            “But it’s raining,” Joe whined with an impatient jounce of the mattress as he drew his leg back.

            The movement roused Adam, who stirred and started to rise.

            “You stay flat, too!” Hop Sing demanded.  He wheeled to glare at Hoss.  “And you!”

            Hoss’s mobile face worked into a pout.  “But, Hop Sing, I ain’t moved a muscle.”

            “Keep muscle flat,” the Cantonese insisted.  “Mr. Ben, too.”

            “The doctor didn’t mean me,” Ben protested, but the granite-faced cook merely pointed imperiously toward the chair.  Ben raised his bandaged palm to indicate his only injury, not one requiring confinement to bed or even a chair.  Hop Sing remained unrelenting, so there was nothing to do but sit meekly and listen to the welcome sound of rain.

            The thirsty earth drank it in greedily, brown blades of grass soaked up the moisture, and pine needles sighed in relief with every revitalizing splash of rain.  The drought was ended.  The Ponderosa would no longer be a tinderbox.  Twenty miles to the east, however, in the heart of Mrs. Harding, now jailed in Virginia City, burned the unquenchable fire of hate and, perhaps one day, revenge.


The End