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Welcome to my page and the stories that I have written.

Writing for me is an escape from the real world and where I get to decide what happens to the characters.

I hope that as readers make their way through each chapter, they are drawn in and feel a connection with each of them.

Whilst I try to keep true to the original character as they were portrayed, I do bring my own influences, experiences and imagination into every one of my stories.  Some may depict certain scenes, others may show only a portion and give a possible alternative or different ending.

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For Bonanza and SeaQuest stories, the menu has been set in chronological order of stories according to age and events for the characters.  Some change to the order may still occur over time. 

Harry Potter will now be a series of stories, instead of one long one.  The other stories will be added as titles are planned out.  The first story “New Places And Faces” is now Story (1) in a much longer series.  Original Title was “Harry Potter – A Life Lived” 

Works In Progress will not be published in a specific order.  Stories will be numbered once the first chapter has been posted.

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Chapter Seven – Reminiscing And Remembering

RIVER BOAT GAMBLER

By Jules

Author Notes – in this chapter I have used exerts and scenes from the Bonanza episode Marie, My Love, but I have not kept strictly to those events or lines and some have been altered to suit my plot. The biggest of these is Marie having spent time living in the same house as Marius Angerville. I took descriptions of the inside of the house from the episode, but the second floor and description of other rooms are entirely invented for my purposes. The reasons for these changes or alterations I hope will be explained as the story pans out more.

from the previous chapter:

“I want to go and check on a place, there is a little tavern on the coast called the Captain’s Nest, Ben replied, deliberating avoiding any forthcoming information on where he was heading. “I will meet you there in two hours where we can put our heads together and decide what our next best move is.”

and now the story continues:

“Adam, that fella might not have come across to you as someone who is mighty neighbourly at first, but he gave us what he knew about Joe,” Hoss commented as the two brothers watched their father leave.

“You were the one that had to separate him from the other wagon driver before the Constable came along,” Adam pointed out plainly. “He was pretty quick to hold out his hand for the money when I offered, including the extra tip. He wasn’t too happy that cowboys didn’t accept the ride and complained loudly about making any offer in the future.”

“Reckon he was at that,” Hoss remarked, not able to deny anything that Adam had stated. “Maybe he has a reason for being so eager. There must be quite a few taxi driver’s in a place this big, all trying to get the same fare.”

“Without a doubt, there would be many,” Adam agreed, stepping aside from a number of people walking past, and pulling on the sleeve of his larger sibling’s shirt, encouraging him to follow his example.

“A lot more people in this city walking the streets than you would normally be used to, Hoss,” Adam gently chided. “You have to be on your toes because there is always someone waiting to step on them. Did he at least give you his name, in case we need to find him again?”

“Folk around here do seem to be in a hurry,” Hoss noted, not liking how rushed and chaotic the streets were. “Last name was Doyle, that much I remember. His first name……,” pausing to recall what he had heard.

“The heavy Irish accent he had was unmistakable, so Doyle certainly fits,” Adam replied in agreement.

“She-miss, She-says………,” Hoss pronounced, frustrated that neither of those suggestions sounded correct. “He sounded sorta like that McCarthy fella that we had all that trouble with when I found that strong box full of gold.”

“Seamus,” Adam filled in, giving a little chuckle, finding his brother’s efforts mildly amusing, but quickly making it disappear at receiving the distinct stare of disapproval.

“That ain’t fair, Adam,” Hoss huffed indignantly. One of the few times that he felt like siding with his younger brother when Adam appeared to be getting too big for his britches, and using his college education in mockery.

“It is a very common Irish name that I have heard in the past,” he gave in his own defence. “There have been a few people that I have known over the years that you have never met. We don’t need to be coming across the likes of anybody like McCarthy,” he added, remembering that saga well.”

“Let’s get to what we need done about finding Joe,” Hoss countered, not entirely believing his brother’s excuse, but letting it drop for more important things at hand.

“Yes, let’s do that,” Adam encouraged. Time was not on their side, and was slipping away.

Deep down, he was beginning to worry as much as his father about how many days it had been now since Joe had been forcibly separated from his family. They may not find anybody who had seen Joe this time around, or find something left behind that belonged from him. They had been fortunate enough to find clues along the way so far up until now, but Adam wasn’t convinced that their share of luck could last forever. With a city of this size, the enormity of their task was beginning to stand out starkly.

“Feels kinda odd getting around without having our own horses to rely on,” Hoss stated. “It would be good to find someone who has a bit more knowledge of where to go than we do. Might help us be able to find out where that skunk is keeping Joe.”

“That would be something worthwhile, Hoss,” Adam answered, knowing that they were all eager to find any shred of evidence that would aid in their search. “We do need to find that livery stable that Pa was talking about and suitable horses.”

“A word of warning; you have been in this city less than a couple of hours, and you cannot suddenly judge the character of a person because they gave you their name and know their way around?” Adam mentioned. If these were the streets of Virginia City, then he would have had no problem believing any commentary from the people that were crossing their path, or need to second guess their intentions. In the past, Hoss was pretty good at being able to tell the measure of a man, by his walk and by the gun he wore.

New Orleans was very different from what his younger brother was used to. The city had a personality all of her own that only a few had ever truly captured with a paintbrush or music and song. Hoss had previously visited cities such as San Francisco, and once to Boston, but that was the sum total of his extensive experience. Any advantage they may have possessed or gained was stripped away.

Right now, the two of them were still wearing travel clothes. They couldn’t see any well-dressed gentleman openly wearing a gun-belt. They were the strangers in a city where the people stared back, misjudging character based on appearance before any interaction ever happened.

The two brothers had watched their father walk down the street at an even pace, away from them in an easterly direction. “Pa was sure being secretive about where he was headed wasn’t he, Adam?” Hoss casually commented, fiddling with the brim of his hat.

“There are memories from this city that have haunted Pa for a long time, Hoss,” Adam pointed out to his larger sibling, having a little inkling of which ‘other place’ would draw their father’s attention away from finding Joe. In truth, their father may have prayed that going there would provide some of the answers they desperately needed.

The silhouette of their father quickly became lost amidst the busy crowd that made up a typical New Orleans street. The two Cartwright men turned in a westerly direction, away from the Railway Station, intending to find accommodation and transportation in the city.

_________________________________________________________________________________________

The mid-morning sun was warm, and even more people had congregated, going about their business and daily lives in all manner of ways. From horse drawn, enclosed elaborate carriages, open coaches and narrow single-seated buggies. The modes of transport were very different to those one would find on the streets of Virginia City.

The gentlemen owning their own horses, sat astride them, riding purposefully towards their intended destination. Both mounted riders and wheeled vehicles criss-crossed their way down the wide streets. The noise from wagon wheels, the snapping of leather reins, pedestrians and animals alike, all crescendoed together in a chaotic orchestra that assaulted the senses of a visitor all at once.

This vast and vibrant city of New Orleans was a totally different experience, and for Ben, it was difficult not to compare his daily routine in quiet, reserved Virginia City, to how people made their way about these bustling streets. The men riding those horses were impeccably groomed and seated on ornately carved leather saddles. Ladies paraded the street in fine dresses, their faces partly shaded by large, wide brimmed hats, joining in pleasant conversations.

Tom Perkin’s humble General Store would be swallowed up by these larger shops, though the personal attention to detail for each customer would be absent. Bigger wasn’t always better in Ben’s opinion, and he liked to be able to take his own time to peruse the variety of goods available to purchase.

The smell of the air was dusty as a breeze gusted and swirled about, taunting the coat tails of the men, and the long skirts of the ladies. Taking a look down at one’s feet however, and they would soon be greeted by the overpowering stench of fouled water and partially dried mud that came from day to day business operations. A few shops away, where the street intersected with another, a butcher could be seen outside of his store, using a large knife to dismember a beef carcass.

Walking past a small apothecary establishment and the scent of perfume and dried flowers wafted out, drawing attention from the ladies who gathered around the window in small groups and chatted excitedly. Strong but enticing aromas came from the numerous bake houses making the daily quota for the masses.

Making his way down the street, Ben found the sights and aromas about New Orleans stirring up a whole array of emotions. A distinct reminder of how much the city had grown, expanded and diversified since his last visit, but more importantly, how much he had changed.

Ben tipped his hat politely to one young woman as he walked past her, but he received a brief and curt nod in response to his chivalrous manners. Her attention being drawn to the small child clinging with a sticky hand to her long skirt and a large colourful lollipop in the other.

There was a part of Ben that wanted to travel as quickly as the other folks would allow to his intended destination, but there were memories from the past catching up to him, following with a breath of nostalgia and causing his stride to shorten and his pace to wither with trepidation. Although it had been many years since he had walked down this particular route, somehow his feet carried him without hesitation and he found himself nearing a familiar bend in the road.

Before long he recognised an approaching street sign which read Rue Royale, and suddenly there was no crowd of people; quite the opposite, everyone but himself faded away with the ghost of time. Ben Cartwright found himself standing not far from the front of a building that brought back a mixed up, patchwork of emotions and a plethora of overwhelming memories.

One fateful morning all those years before he could vividly recall approaching from the opposite direction, passing in front of the Exchange Place, a local market where many different people gathered to buy and sell goods. This part of the city and people who dwelt within these streets often held a sordid reputation compared to other more affluent neighbourhoods. Walking on foot that day he had been making his way across the chalky road, the street sign had been affixed on a wrought iron fence, not the fancy tall lamp post where is was currently attached and displayed.

On that day his attention had been on other matters at the time, when without warning, the unmistakable sound of a galloping horse startled him from behind, causing him to move quickly and maintain his balance, but also to sidestep out of the animal’s path. The large chestnut obeying the sharp snap of the reins from its master’s skilful hands and altering its intended direction enough to avoid a collision. Ben found himself being covered in dust and showered in small stones that were churned up as a result of the horse’s hooves on the loosely compacted roadway.

A young woman revealed herself as the rider, dressed handsomely in a tailored, full length fitted black dress, trimmed with silver brocade. On her head she wore a tall black fabric hat trimmed with a long white sheer ribbon and accented by a scarlet red flower. A playful smile crossed her lips and she seemed to take a small amount of delight at Ben’s futile attempts to shield himself from the debris raining down on his travel cloak.

Elegant, and youthfully bold, her enticing laughter reached his ears and he had not been able to disguise his curiosity, offering a genuine smile of his own in greeting. The mystery of a name and who she was only grew more as the horse galloped away from him towards the house. Ben adjusted his coat tails and top-hat, making a silent promise to himself to learn everything he could about her.

Time had become both a combatant enemy and a trustworthy friend. Allowing him the luxury of reminiscing and the feeling of mystery and intrigue; only then to show him the cruel hand of fate with the loss and loneliness for the love and life that had ripped from him too soon.

A team of horses pulling a wagon drove out in front of Ben from the street at heart-racing speed, the sharp snap of the leather reins ringing in his ears, the churning dust filling his lungs and causing him to cover his mouth and nose with the bandanna he wore. For a short time, he was bent over at the waist, lifting his eyes briefly only to find his view obscured by the choking plume, forcing a harsh cough to erupt from the back of his throat. He was forced to look away again and use the brim of his hat to shield his eyes as best he could from the cloud of debris, coughing a second time.

Ben’s barely contained apprehensive expression turned into one of confusion for a moment as he stood and gazing at the exterior of what had once been a grand house. Overbearing and much taller than some of the other buildings nearby and further down the adjacent and parallel streets. In earlier times, the house had proudly stood without neighbouring homes on either side. From what little he had learned, Marius’ family had been a proud family and signified this with everything that was owned.

Delivering news of Jean’s unfortunate death had brought no comfort to Marius or Marie, but Ben had promised the man that he would see through such a dreadful task to the end. He still recalled vividly the first time he had entered the house and was greeted with Marius sitting at a table, wielding a sword. Although he had only known the man a short time, an sense of guilt over his death existed. For many years afterward taking Marie back to Nevada, he would ask himself if he could have done more to prevent the duel that would ultimately cause his demise.

The shadows of the past were beginning to take a much firmer hold, tugging at his memory, almost guiding his footsteps. His attention was drawn towards the house, and for a brief moment he found himself contemplating; a doorway began to emerge, opening up and inviting him to walk through the passages of time.

In an instant, his mind was forcibly wrenched back to current time, like a stranger delivering a cold harsh slap to his face, there was no emotional connection to hold onto. No familiarity to cling to with the dwindling hope that somehow a ghostly shadow of Marie’s presence would help him find Joseph before it was too late.

Upon first meeting of Marius, he remembered the timbers of the two-storey home being weathered grey, but still sturdy and well-constructed. Ben could recall there being some shrubs planted on either side of the main support beam, but the unruly growth made them appear sparse and spindly. There had been the threat on more than one occasion to have them forcibly removed, and now it appeared that it may have been carried out, because there was no living greenery surrounding the lower level of the building.

Once there had been an old rickety chair seated out the front, in which his friend, Marius, liked to watch the people and the bustling city go by. Above his head there had been a large aging sign which read Angerville Academy. What greeted him now was a building that was so very different from the house that Marie had so loved and cherished. The timber painted a dull white. Where Marius’s chair had been, now there was a large cumbersome pushchair and the sign had been hastily scribed over to read: Royale Rue Hospital.

Everything had changed, and perhaps Ben paused regretfully, and being honest, himself most of all. Today he wasn’t wearing the heavy cloak that he had been that fateful day or his newly purchased hat. Only his long travel coat which he had made a poor attempt to brush the street dust off, and his hat, one that wasn’t new but fit better after many years of moulding to his head.

Ben removed his hat out of common courtesy, like he had done that first day when greeting Marius. Today, his first few steps into the entrance-way caused those memories of yesteryear to return tenfold, casting a strange spell over him and causing him to hesitate in his gait as he entered through the front doors. Once inside he stopped in the large expansive room, his gaze drawn in all directions. His mind was trying to recall what had changed and what remained the same.

On the wall beside the door, there had been a large elaborate tapestry draping from ceiling to floor, covering most of the main front window. Marie had told him that it had been especially brought in from Spain at great expense, but now he could only vaguely remember the figure of a horse woven into the fabric. This had now been replaced by thick heavy curtains that blocked a lot of the natural sunlight penetrating into the room. A number of lights inside burned brightly despite it being a clear sunny day outside in the street.

In front of the tapestry, the large heavy set dark wooden desk with ornately carved legs had been replaced with a plain wooden bench seat. There was no longer any coat stand just inside the doorway to hang one’s coat, so Ben left his coat on. The large rust coloured rug that had adorned the floor had been replaced by a clean hard surface. Cold and uninviting with no story to tell.

The brick work that had been on Ben’s right when he walked through the door was now sealed up and the cabinet that once rested against it gone, as was the heavy brass Coat of Arms plaque signifying the stature of the family from an earlier time.

There had been two embroidered Edwardian chairs down stairs, as Ben remembered the lovely brocade on each of them, but they were nowhere to be seen. Nor the number of bronze statues or the brass candlestick holders that had been present during past visits. Although there had been changes, Ben’s mind could recall exactly how the room had been decorated with antique furniture and elaborate collectable pieces from many different parts of the world.

The mahogany staircase, carved out of rich dark wood that gave it a commanding presence in the room and was central to the lower floor, was now painted a stark white, with little elegance or grandeur left to be seen. Any knots of age had been sanded back and the surface now smooth and void of any kind of character.

Unfortunately once Marie had joined him to live at the Ponderosa, Ben had not been able to keep up with who had acquired this stately building after Marius’ death. Marie had certainly been concerned and had written to good friends whom she could trust. But she had not received any replies as to who had taken over the residence. Someone had planned for it be used in a more practical manner as a hospital.

For being mid-morning, the whole place was strangely void of noise and people. Quiet was usually expected at a hospital, but the atmosphere that greeted him on this felt like something entirely different.

Echoes of the very first conversation Ben remembered having with Marius ran through his mind as he placed a hand on the staircase railing, preparing to head to the next floor. A smile touched his lips as he pictured the scene of Marius maintaining an epee replaying before him. His question about the man’s identity had been answered with another question and they had talked about his clipper voyage to New Orleans.

Upon his arrival, he was unaware that of the tangled connections and bitterness that existed within the family, not only with Jean, but towards Marie and Marius. Giving his mother the awful news had not been an easy or welcomed task. When he thought some common ground had been reached about being able to sell the furs he had brought with him, she had quickly turned her back and refused any further audience when the subject turned to his marriage with Marie. It soured even further when he gave her information about his accommodation, and Marius’ name was given as a good friend.

The woman was adamant that the two men had never shared such a friendship. Marius had declared openly that he considered Jean like a son. Further conversations with Angerville confirmed that they had once been good friends, but Marie had greatly disapproved of him challenging her cousin to a duel.

Ben found the man’s manner relaxed and friendly from the very beginning. The torment in the man’s eyes at hearing of Jean’s death that day had been very real. His sense of duty for carrying out an unenviable undertaking stayed strong. In the end he had seen to it that the man’s last wishes were carried out to the best of his ability, including the partial apology to Marie which had not been well received or accepted.

The bannister beneath his hand felt smooth but a little less familiar. For the number of times he had visited this particular residence, there had been even fewer times that he had climbed the staircase to the next floor without invitation. There was no such permission on this occasion either, but he felt compelled to head in this direction.

At the top of the stairs, there was a large landing, a luxurious sitting room behind the door directly facing him. There was a smaller bedroom to the left, and a corridor that led to a number of other bedrooms and bathrooms to the right. Ben kept his focus on the door to the sitting room, putting his hand on the brass door knob, but pausing before turning it in his hand.

A warm breath of air blew against his neck, and Ben used his gloved hand to brush it aside. Admonishing himself for being silly, he gathered a good helping of confidence and twisted the knob. For a moment he had been expecting resistance and the door to be locked, but instead he was delighted with a touch of surprise when he was able to enter without further impedance.

As he walked inside the room, his gaze was drawn to the large vacant expanse of plaster wall above the fireplace. No fire had burned there for many years, and the surrounding grate and ornate black iron insert on the front were now cold to the touch. At one time a large portrait painting of a young Marie had taken pride of place above that mantel. A picture that had taken Ben’s breath away when he had first laid eyes on it, not unlike his impromptu meeting of the young woman herself that first morning.

A striking pose, with the ghost of a smile on her lips, as though mischievously taunting anybody who gazed upon her when they walked into the room. In the oil-brushed depiction she had been wearing an heirloom French lace shawl across her shoulders. At another time it had belonged to her mother, handmade by and passed down by her maternal grandmother. The garment was now carefully stored in a chest in Ben’s bedroom. The background of the photo had depicted a fenced paddock and one of Marie’s favourite horse’s Aramis, a handsome black stallion. The name of the artist who had painted the portrait evaded him.

The brass frame and picture had been removed, the room itself devoid of furniture except for a few remaining large, bulky antique pieces scattered across the room in a chaotic, disarranged collection. An elegant long settee could be detected beneath a heavy calico drop cloth, covering the richly embroidered fabric, keeping it protected and hidden, erasing the years and purpose that it had once served. At one time there had been a beautiful wood stained grand piano over in the corner of the room, but now that space was vacant. There wasn’t even a round scuff mark on the floor left behind by the wooden feet.

This room had been one of Marie’s favourite, with morning sunshine warming it during early spring. Aristocratic society of New Orleans would have deemed it a reception or drawing room, she had referred to it often as her parlour. Ben had come to learn that it was the privacy of the room that drew her to spend most of her time there. A place where she would write long letters to friends, and record entries in her personal diary. A few of those private journals were wrapped in parchment paper and tucked away out of sight in the same chest as the shawl back in Nevada.

Ben swapped the hat he was carrying to his opposite hand as intense emotional winds buffeted against his back, causing him to drawn in a deep breath and slowly exhale. Feelings that he had pushed down deep a long time ago were finding their way to the surface, refusing them to be ignored. Trying once more to regain some kind of composure, he placed his free hand on the uncovered mantle above the fireplace. Supporting himself at arms length, he was attempting to establish some balance between reality and memories that were growing stronger within this very room.

The man wasn’t wearing any gloves this morning, and lightly ran a finger very slowly the entire length the wooden mantle. Lifting up his hand, he didn’t quite know what he expected to find. There was no dust on his hand or fingertips, no shards of Marie who had made this place a home. Remnants from a lifetime ago that had aged with time, or the ashes from a house he had barely known, and was no closer to unlocking the secrets held within. Shivering slightly, his mind returned to present time.

This room had not yet been painted white like some of the walls downstairs, signifying its transformation into a space used as part of a hospital. The lace curtains that had once hung there had been replaced by thicker, darker drapes. The whole room appearing clean and bleak, as though Marie had never lived here at all. Lifting his arm from the mantle, Ben turned and walked a few paces across to the left-hand side of the room.

Beneath the window was a small round oak writing desk that was decorated with a fine lace tablecloth, accompanied by a single chair. A vase of delicate pale cream roses allowed a gentle scent to fill the room with a light perfume. The petals took on a paler colour as warm gentle morning sunlight streamed through the window and bathing that one side of the room. Vanilla, one of Marie’s favourite scents, even after she had moved away to the Ponderosa.

On top of the desk lay a handwritten sheet of music, waiting to be carried across to the opposite side of the room to the piano. For a moment, Ben could almost hear the sweet melody that would play. Reaching down with a trembling hand, his fingertips almost touching the aged paper. His attention drawn away for only a mere moment, but upon looking down again, he couldn’t help but blink away a silent tear that escaped from the corner of his eye. There was no lace, no sheet of musical notes on the table or vase of flowers. Only a metal service tray that had been painted plain white.

Time and his mind were playing a cruel game with his emotions and memories, or was he responsible for trying to recapture the very essence of a love lost? One that he still held deep in his heart.

Ben walked to the door, pausing and taking one last look behind as he closed the door, intending to head back downstairs. For the immediate future his unyielding focus, energy and efforts were needed to find Joe. When his son was safe, and they were ready to take him back home, then perhaps he could indulge in reminiscence and wander once more through those halls of yesteryear.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________

Back on-board the paddle-boat:

Joe Cartwright lay prone on the bed, unaware of what had transpired for quite a number of hours. His curly dark head twisting and turning on the pillow, as though he couldn’t find a comfortable position. Earlier in the evening his sleep had resulted from the sedative that Seline had administered. Gazing down at the young man with fresh growing concern in her own eyes, Bonnie couldn’t be sure that it was the residual drug in his system was causing his current state. The young man’s restlessness had increased over the past few hours. His position of laying on his back on the bed had not changed.

Bonnie had been able to remove the young man’s fine jacket and ruffled shirt as he slept without him giving her any trouble or being in a position to resist or object. Fever still plagued him, and she had spent the majority of the night bathing his forehead and chest with cool water. Her consistent efforts had managed to bring down his temperature but it had not relinquished its hold on him completely. Thankfully, she had been successful in getting some water down Joe’s throat, but she feared it was not enough to completely starve off the effects of dehydration.

The tanned skin beneath her fingertips felt hot to the touch as she ran a soft cool, dampened cloth across his chest with her opposite hand. Standing up and walking, he had begun to show some small signs of improvement earlier today, and had spoken to her as he dressed in the clothes left out for him. Joe had openly displayed his displeasure about not being able to remember simple things about himself, and had tried to argue with her. Emotions and actions that he had been unable to accomplish on his own a couple days ago aboard the train.

Since he had first been carried back from the gaming room by the two men, his sleep had been rather quiet and unremarkable. That had begun to change as dawn broke upon the horizon, with the pattern of his breathing turning from sounding deep and rhythmic to being much more shallow. Joe tossed his head back and forth on the pillows several times, and his brow creasing momentarily with confusion and pain. Bonnie was convinced that the young man was going to open his eyes and wake up, but alas, so far that hadn’t happened.

At least twice he had called out one clear word, but on its own, there was little substance or meaning to it, so no connection could be drawn as to why he had uttered it. Any other speaking had been infrequent, and incoherent mutterings punctuated with moans of pain. Joe had lifted his arm up to his head, running his fingertips across his forehead, signalling that he was still experiencing headaches. The few steps forward in recovery he had gained today had taken several steps back.

Bonnie was tired herself, both mentally and physically, and Seline and the other two men had shown little empathy to the long hours thrust solely upon her to care for the injured Cartwright boy. She had been hoping to gauge how much of his memory was returning by talking to him and taking note of his physical health, but he needed to be awake for that. She was growing concerned that she wouldn’t be able to maintain the false bravado of pretending not to care about the prisoner’s welfare.

Since taking the bold step of leaving the note at the docks for the Cartwright family in San Francisco, there had been no contact from them or anybody else who might be in a position to help rescue him from Seline’s clutches. There was no way to know if they had even knew of his peril, or if they were travelling towards New Orleans to help Joe.

The young woman prided herself on being able to rise to the challenge and cope in situations that society would deem unsuitable for a proper lady. She knew how to work hard, and tolerate tough men, but Bonnie didn’t know if she was strong enough to dare and offer more help. What could she achieve on her own without incurring Seline’s wrath for them both? The risk of drawing suspicion and being caught was high and should she be removed from taking care of the young man and he was left by himself, what then? Would Joe Cartwright be able to fend off any threat to his life or create any kind of escape attempt?

The meeting with Seline and the conversation they had shared had distressed him greatly. She had seen the pain reflected in his eyes at the tangled web that had been woven about his mother’s previous life. Learning about her tragic death at the hands of another man had been devastating news. She had felt the trembling in his limbs, and knew he was searching for any shred of familiarity or salvage any kind of past to cling to in order to make sense of everything that he was being told.

That whole time, Bonnie was aware that Joe was being manipulated by Seline into believing false accusations about his real mother and father, whilst setting himself up as the caring parent figure that was a large part of his life. She had heard the man deliberately name Ben Cartwright as the man responsible for Marie’s riding accident. For a second time today, a great deal of shame came over her at being an unwilling party to such a cruel charade.

Despite any efforts she might be making now to care for Joe, they would not be enough to make up for her part in this fiasco. No matter the extra risk she had taken to try and get outside help for the young man, she was just as culpable as the other men in his kidnapping and captivity. Bonnie had to resign herself to accept that her decision in the past, big and small had determined the fate of the Cartwright boy and all that he had been forced to endure up until this point. Her choices from this point onwards would determine the outcome and consequences for them both.

A few hours ago, Joe had come running into the gaming room, dishevelled and confused, barely able to stand and experiencing pain, shocking all those present with his strength of mind and physical strength. Panic had set in as too many images assailed him at once and there was no way to arrange them into any coherent order. The young man had pointed accusingly at Edwards and Yeager, clearly remembering a previous encounter with both men.

When the boy had collapsed in front of them all, Edwards and Yeager had conveyed the injured prisoner back to the room he had been occupying. Following that, Edwards had been sent in person to call upon the same physician that had come aboard the vessel when they arrived in New Orleans. Seline had instructed him to bring the doctor back with him, but had flown into a furious rage when the man had returned with only a message.

The doctor, Hector Rawlings, was out on another urgent visitation and had refused to stop his treatment and dealings and with that patient upon being summoned. Edwards had been told that Rawlings would come at the first available opportunity, but that was now approaching more than twelve hours ago.

Seline and Yeager had left Bonnie to take care of the young man on her own, expecting that Edwards would only be absent for a short time. When the man didn’t return to the vessel after hours, they had retired to bed. During that time, she tried to best to take stock of Joe’s symptoms and general well-being, as well as what she could recall had transpired since the doctor’s last visit. The physician would be wanting as much information as possible when he arrived to make an accurate diagnosis.

Bonnie was startled out of her own thoughts by shouting coming from outside.

“The Doctor is here,” she heard Yeager call out to his employer.

“It’s about damn time,” Seline muttered out loud, appearing in the doorway to his own private cabin, adjusting his embroidered waistcoat, and looking down at his pocket watch, noting the hour. Yeager stood nearby as Edwards escorted the doctor up the gangway onto the deck.

“Good morning, Doctor,” came Marchant’s thinly veiled cordial greeting after taking the cigar from his mouth and letting out a acrid puff of smoke. “I expected your presence quite some hours ago when I first sent one of my men to summon you.”

The gangly, tall physician was carrying his small black bag in his right hand, “I came when time allowed,” came the curt answer. The man’s complexion was quite pale and his gait was slow. “I have been awake for the past forty-eight hours and am in no mood to be chastised like one of your poorly educated lackey’s.”

“Now you listen here,” Seline snarled, ignoring the doctor’s words entirely, “I am paying you good money, so I expect service when I call upon you.”

The doctor stood up to his full height, his own anger beginning to grow, “No, you listen to me my good man, I am the only physician within a thousand miles on either side of the river who would accept your money. For the moment, my work at the hospital combined with the area that I am expected to cover on my own for private house calls, the workload is extensive. In any other city of this size, it would normally require the services of several of my learned colleagues. I can assure you that none of them would even bother with a professional visit of this nature, no matter the payment being offered.”

“I have just spend the last twenty four hours with a woman with a difficult delivery of her baby. Had I left when your man requested, then both the mother and child would certainly have been lost to blood loss and complications that had set in. As it stands now, both are healthy and should survive only due to my vigilance. There are many other patients that I am responsible for in addition to the young man you are keeping here,” Rawlings explained plainly.

He had been hoping to end his association with Seline and this whole messy affair, but as a doctor, felt compelled to follow up on anybody he had previously seen. Hector couldn’t deny to himself that he was looking for a way out of his current obligations that didn’t involve neglect or poor treatment on his part.

“You should be informed that I have tendered an application to the St Mercy Hospital as chief physician and consultant, and believe that I meet the necessary skill set and experience required. Should I be deemed worthy of such an honoured capacity, then all other work, including attending to private patients would cease immediately. The hospital is currently undergoing extensive expansion and will soon be considered to be the centre of medicine and learning for the whole state,” Rawlings confirmed. “That would suit someone like myself better and I may no longer be working at the smaller hospital where I am much longer. The current owner of that facility is still considering his next move in relation to it’s fittings, upkeep and staffing arrangements. The man taking over ownership of the building may not be in a position financially to match such a lucrative opportunity.”

“I don’t care about any other hospitals where you work or patients that you have to attend to, they are none of my concern,” Seline retorted without a shred of empathy. He was about to start another tirade at the doctor when he was abruptly cut off.

“Do you have a patient for me to see or not?” Rawlings spoke over the top of the man. “Because if you don’t, then I see no reason for me to stay and be subjected to your bullish behaviour any longer.”

A curt nod from Seline to Edwards and Yeager signalled for them to block the doctor’s path should he choose to turn around and walk back the way he had come.

“He is occupying the same room when you last came here,” Seline stated, unhappy that the doctor was talking back to him. The physician in San Francisco had argued with him too, and he had dealt with that person swiftly. The problem on this occasion was that this doctor’s absence would be noticed. Another solution would need to be devised if the man’s attitude did not improve to his liking.

______________________________________________

Bonnie stood up slowly, straightening and smoothing the front of her dress as Doctor Rawlings appeared in the doorway, partially blocking the sunlight behind him and for a moment, creating a dark and imposing shadow. His attention was immediately drawn to back wall, critically gauging the figure laying on the bed. Without any further invitation, he removed the hat he was wearing, walking across the room and on the bedside table, setting down a small black medical bag he was carrying.

Originally, the doctor had told her that he would be returning on a regular basis over the course of a week to check on his patient, but so far, that had not happened and this was only the second occasion that Bonnie had been in his presence. The animosity between Seline and the doctor was obvious to everybody, and neither seemed to be willing to put aside their personal dislike for each other. She could only hope that Rawlings was experienced enough not to let petty bickering or differences distract him from his duty.

Towards the front of the room, Seline stood, continually rocking back and forth on the heels of his boots, impatiently waiting for an updated verdict about the young man’s condition. As far as he was concerned, both the doctor and Joe himself were thwarting any attempts or drawn out plans that he had been making against the Cartwright family.

Edwards and Yeager chose to remain outside on the deck, waiting for instructions from Seline, noting that the room was already too crowded with fraying tempers.

Doctor Rawlings sat on the edge of the bed opposite to Bonnie, using the back of his hand on the young man’s forehead. “Elevated and slightly warmer than I would normally like to see, but not at dangerous levels or unusual given the circumstances. How long has his temperature been like this?”

An unexpected noise interrupted the doctor’s assessment and caused Joe to twist his head on the pillow towards the sound of an unfamiliar voice.

By turning his face towards the speaker there were distinct and prominent blemishes on his temple above the ear, spreading down the side of his face. There was a contusion on the back of his head, hidden beneath the dark matte of curly hair. An earlier one intended to knock him senseless in the street in San Francisco, but a second being suffered within moments. The fresher wound being the aftermath of the glancing blow aboard the train. Both subsequent blows delivered by Seline’s own hand.

“Up until yesterday, I would have told you that the fever has been burning within him fairly consistently since your first visit. Now that I stop to think about it, his temperature has been much improved and lower within daylight hours. During the night it returns and starts rising again until the early morning hours,” Bonnie answered.

Bonnie was surprised that the doctor was addressing her with his first questions about the young man’s condition.

The doctor’s method of examining the patient had not changed much, but his face held a little more character to it today, but his personality was too closed off. He had given her some comprehensive instructions after his initial assessment as to the best course of action, which she had tried her best to follow accordingly. Perhaps he wasn’t used to treating younger patients, but the man’s bedside manner needed major improvement.

“Similar symptoms have been noted and recorded by colleagues with other patient’s who are suffering from a head injury,” Rawlings informed her. “When was he brought back to this room? Has he been this restless the whole time?”

“Yesterday he was at least trying to eat and started to show some signs of pushing through and think more than he had been able to before. After lunch, I was told to assist him in getting dressed and taken out of this room,” Bonnie gave in explanation. “He was unsteady on his feet, and went against my better judgement, but didn’t want me to stay to help. By the time I opened the door again, he was a little more talkative and had managed to put almost everything on correctly without assistance. He did ask if the clothes picked out were something he would normally wear.”

“He didn’t demonstrate remembering anything simpler about himself like his name?” the doctor inquired. The entire time the young woman was speaking he could see her glancing towards the back of the room and being extra careful with her words.

Bonnie shook her head negatively to this question, “Not at that time, and he was only getting more frustrated with any efforts he made to try and force himself to remember,” she filled in. “He couldn’t hide the obvious pain that was evident the whole time. Stubbornness became more prevalent as he started showing improvement and wanting more independence. That includes attempting to do things for himself without help,” she added.

“Have there been any further bouts of nausea or vomiting before or after he has eaten or taken in water?” Rawlings queried, his gaze returning to the young man as he groaned and moved about restlessly on the bed.

“At least once when I tried to press him to eat something a little more substantial,” Bonnie answered truthfully. “You told me now to be concerned if he wasn’t eating a real lot yet, and the texture of the food itself may have been wrong. But he needs to eat much better than he has if he is to regain his strength. The fever has been burning off too quickly what little energy his body has been getting. I have tried to do everything as you have told me, but I don’t have the schooling like you do.”

“I am sure you have managed as best you can,” the doctor assured her, but any further back-handed praise was cut off when Seline made an impromptu snort of derision.

Rawlings had indeed promised and was prepared to come more frequently, but after leaving the vessel, Seline had sent word to him at the hospital that he would be contacted before his services were called upon again. The man had some grand idea that the young man was going to make a miraculous recovery. The doctor suspected this wouldn’t be the case, but the man was obstinate and wanted to dictate terms based upon what fitted in with his own plans, not sound advice or the best course of action according to the young man’s needs.

“What was different before he awoke in his confused state later in the day?” he asked, trying to pinpoint what might have caused a delay in his recovery.

“After he was dressed, I escorted him like Mr Seline wanted to the gaming room,” Bonnie replied.

“When he was there in what you are describing as the gaming room, did you make sure that he wasn’t offered alcohol? Did he consume any rich food, or eat something else that you know of that may have upset his stomach later?”

“No, not that I recall, he was given a glass of iced water, not hard liquor,” Bonnie stated. “The same goes for food, he didn’t have anything else to eat after leaving his room.”

“Hmmmm,” the doctor pondered, thinking that a few details were not adding up yet. “Can you think of anything to tell me?”

“No, I have told you everything I can,” she started to say, “He was nervous, standoffish and unsure of everything and everybody here. His complexion was pale and he lacked any kind of co-ordination. By the time he left the gaming room, his emotional state was not good, aside from the headaches returning fiercely.”

“Emotional state?” Rawlings recited, wanting her to elaborate further.

“When he left the room, he was upset and distressed about what had been talked about,” Bonnie relayed. “Mr Seline told him that you would be examining him again when he mentioned the headaches being very bad.”

“When he got to the room, he laid down on the bed, looking for anyway to escape the pain. I was about to hand him a glass of water before he dropped off to sleep, but Mr Seline dissolved a packet of powder into the water first. I thought it was one of the mild pain powders you instructed us to use, but it was not. It was one of the satchels that I was given in San Francisco to help put him to sleep.”

“A sedative?” the doctor asked loudly, and clearly unimpressed. On the bed, Joe startled at the sudden outburst. The man paused a moment, thinking that his patient would wake. When it was clear that he may take some time to do so, he continued stating the reasons for his disapproval.

“After I gave strict instructions that I didn’t want to take such measures until I was certain that there wouldn’t be further complications with his head injury?” He suspected that the young woman’s actions were heavily influenced by her employer, but that didn’t excuse her entirely. He had meant for the question to be directed at Seline for his foolhardiness and at the girl to a lesser degree, with a tone to match that both should have followed his medical advice better.

“It didn’t do him any harm,” Seline tossed back casually with the butt of a cigar still clenched in his teeth. He wasn’t in any mood for this doctor question his methods. “The boy was in pain, and I deemed it a necessary precaution. Bonnie has proven herself quite capable of attending to him up until now without needing you.”

“Alas, your ignorance and your poor judgement may have caused more harm than good,” Rawlings returned with a touch of condemnation.

“The young man eventually drifted to sleep, and to be honest for a good portion of time he was attempting to fight off effects the sedative,” Bonnie spoke up, thinking that the doctor was judging any of their actions a little too harshly with his accusations. “Once he fell asleep, he stayed that way for a good few hours.”

“When he woke again, none of us knew and when he burst into the gaming room for a second time, he was in pain, confused and disorientated,” she went on to explain. “It was clear to me that some of his memories of his previous life as Joe Cartwright were assaulting him. I say that because he recognized the two gentlemen outside and recalled a recent encounter with them.”

Bonnie’s mention of the young man’s real name and previous associations caused Seline to growl at her carelessness from across the room. She took a hasty step backwards closer to the bed, in case he decided to deliver a physical rebuke at her mistake.

The doctor put his hand on the patient’s head, probing the matted curls and giving his candid assessment, “The swelling that is present now that I can feel has certainly subsided, so that is good and encouraging.” Looking over at Seline as he pulled his hand away and spoke again, “Although you may want to hear the rest of my opinion, the time line is close to what I would have predicted for both improvement to be noticeable and for setbacks to occur. I still there there is quite a way for him to go yet before any kind of normalcy.”

Rawlings was silently pleased to see the young man frown at the intrusion and fresh discomfort, and make an effort to pull away and escape from what was hurting him. The lips parted and a few incoherent words were whispered followed by a moan of pain. The patient’s breathing pattern was slowly changing from when he had first come into the room, convincing him more that Joe was in the process of waking. The effects of the sedative were still affecting how long that may take.

“The bad headaches and dizziness are to be expected at this stage of recovery and demonstrates that the patient still needs to be monitored carefully,” the doctor remarked. “I do agree with you that he needs more nourishment and be encouraged to eat it more regularly.”

“I have tried doing that and giving a different selection each time that might tempt him more rather than just the thin broth and small amounts of soft food that he has been consuming,” Bonnie replied. “I will keep persevering,” she promised.

The doctor could hear Seline in the background, but ignored any blustering and intimidation tactics he was trying to employ to rush his diagnosis. Only when he was ready did he turn to Marchant and give a detailed care plan.

“There is no doubt in my mind that it was a dangerous move on your part to allow the young man to be out of bed for any extended period of time,” Rawlings admonished. “He should have been resting, avoiding food that is too acidic or heavy on his stomach, all alcohol and be kept away out of a tobacco free environment. Especially for someone with not only one head injury, but two.”

“I only examined him a few days ago unconscious and believed at that time that he would be suffering from severe headaches and bouts of dizziness when he did wake. All symptoms that this young woman has reported occurring and made worse by a culmination of exacerbating factors that should have been avoided for several more days to a week at least,” the doctor continued.

Turning his attention back to the patient, without waiting for further argument from Seline, the doctor went about trying to get his patient to wake. Rawlings noted that the young man was only partially dressed, with a fine sheen of sweat noticeable on brow and chest.

“Can you wake up for me, young man?” the doctor asked, using a softer tone of voice. When a verbal approach didn’t invoke the desired result, he used a hand on shake his upper arm. “Come on now, you have been asleep but need to wake now.”

The doctor’s patience and efforts were rewarded when Joe slowly opened his green eyes, but could see the confusion held within them and the uncertainty of his surroundings as he looked about for something familiar. Panic started to set in as he took stock of the number of strangers in the room, as he used both arms to push himself backwards towards the headboard of the bed.

Bonnie tried to help him and moved the pillows behind his back to help him sit up more. “There is nothing to be alarmed about, this man is a doctor,” she told Joe.

She nodded her head affirmatively at the young man as he turned his face towards her, searching to confirm what she was telling him was the truth.

“My name is Doctor Rawlings, young man,” he gave in introduction. “How are you feeling?” he asked, choosing to keep his questions simple to begin with.

Joe went to answer, but grasped and scratched at his throat to signify it was parched, gratefully accepting a glass of water, merely sipping at it before handing it back to the woman. She had been expecting him to drink more, but he shook his head in refusal and pushed it back into her hand. He was trying to gain his bearings and put together the pieces of what had transpired, but was coming up a little short on answers. He couldn’t even recall how he came to be in this room or how long he had been sleeping in the bed beneath him.

To say it was unnerving to open your eyes and have a group of people watching you was an understatement. Flashes and voices filtered through the pain in his head. Someone had told him that his name was Joseph but he didn’t know a last name. He trying to bring up the last thing he remembered, but was missing several hours and his head was throbbing without abatement.

Looking over at the blond woman standing near the top of the bed, he tried to make himself concentrate, squeezing his eyes shut. After a few minutes, he opened them again, still no closer to remembering her name, not that of the rotund man standing at the front of the room. A fleeting scene planted in his mind and he recalled them talking, but not what the subject matter had been. There had been another man present as well, but the location was different to this room. There had been carpet beneath his feet, where as the floor was made up of wooden boards. A circular woven rug covered a small portion of those planks beneath a chest of drawers.

“Fine,” Joe finally gave as a one word response as the doctor waited for him to answer. He was unable to hide the wince of pain from the headache that flared when he moved his head.

“Do you know who you are?” the doctor prodded, not intending to leave him in peace.

“No, I don’t, I already told that to her before,” Joe grouched curtly, instantly regretted raising his voice as the pain spiked through his skull again. He buried his head deeper into the fabric of the pillows and closed his eyes, searching for any kind of respite. A moment later he opened his eyes, “Someone told me that my name is Joe, I don’t know any more than that,” he gave in a calmer manner, placing his hand over his eyes to shield out the light.

“Your name is Joseph Dubois,” Seline stated firmly from across the room, not wanting the shortened version of his first name to spark any memory whatsoever of being a Cartwright.

“I understand your agitation about everything being confusing, Joseph, and your objection and dissatisfaction are duly noted,” Rawlings cajoled. “I know that you are suffering from a most painful headache, even though you have not stated so out loud to me.”

Joseph lowered his hand, looking back at the doctor expectantly and trusting that someone in the room would be honest with him and would help put his memory right. If this man was a doctor, than perhaps he would give him some medicine for the pain. Even his hair was hurting when he reached around and touched with his fingertips.

The doctor felt a sliver of guilt at the young man’s hopeful gaze, “I know you are anxious that you are still experiencing large chunks and lapses in your memory, but let me assure you, that with a head injury like you have sustained, that is perfectly normal. You have to allow yourself time to heal rather than trying to force things to change too rapidly. Otherwise the headaches will continue to plague you endlessly.”

Without vocalising the word, he saw the young man mouth the word as a question ‘normal?’, trying to understand everything that was being said to him.

“Yes, normal,” Rawlings repeated, reaching over to pat the top of the boy’s hands that were clasped casually together in his lap, but they were quickly jerked away by the boy who wasn’t ready to be friends. The gesture was meant as an unspoken apology for the part that he had played so far in this whole nasty scheme. Yes he had been a willing participant at the beginning because of the money being offered. One could say that he was still that now, even with regret beginning to settle into the pit of his stomach.

Rawlings deuced that the majority of the sedative the boy had ingested would have worn off by now, and that Seline would not want his patient knowing that his water had been previously laced. For now he left out that detail as he spoke. Being forewarned about Marchant’s use of artificial methods and a tendency to employ under-handed tricks would serve no purpose except to make the young man even more distrustful of food and drink handed to him.

“Some of the symptoms that you reported to me earlier such as disorientation and confusion could be attributed to someone having a head injury,” the doctor said to Bonnie, turning his face towards her rather than his patient. “When it comes to meal times, I recommend to do it more often in smaller amounts during the day. The headaches and dizziness will probably not entice his appetite, but as you have previously indicated, he does need to eat in order to improve and gain his strength.”

Joe gave an unappreciative noise and a scowl appeared on his face to demonstrate his displeasure to the doctor. All these people talking in the room about him, but not directly to him. Apart from the doctor, he had no idea who they were and no desire to interact with them. Frustration blossomed again as he pushed his body forward on the mattress and laid down on his side, facing the wall with the ever present headache growing and refusing to leave him alone.

Bonnie picked up the glass of water and held it out in offering to him, but Joe showed no interest in drinking the contents, refusing to look at her, instead choosing to close his eyes in avoidance. His current mood was a mixture of being tired and trying to block out what was happening that he didn’t understand and was beyond his control. Joe wanted to find a face that he could greet and know the name of that person without being told who they were or what they supposedly meant to him.

“Being obstinate I suspect,” the doctor stated to her, seeing the young man was intent on being difficult. “What he is feeling is not all of his own doing. There will be times where sleep is the best medicine that could be prescribed, but I will also leave some more pain powders in your custody. One dose in the morning with his breakfast, and one at night should suffice for the next few days. The powder should be dissolved in water to remove any bitter after-taste and make it more palatable.” He retrieved several small satchels of powder from his black bag still resting on the bed-side table and passed them along to the woman.

Rawlings rose from the bed, making one final statement to Joe, knowing he had not drifted off to sleep yet. “Joseph, you will get better and the pain will begin to lessen if you start eating and rest properly. Listen to your own body and do what is needed to take care of yourself.”

The doctor walked over to Seline across the room, firstly so that he was out of earshot from his reluctant patient, and secondly, not wanting to give the man who had summoned him any opportunity to renegotiate or dictate terms. “If you are not going to adhere to my basic instructions, then I see no need for our professional relationship to continue,” he said sternly. “I have other patients to see across this city who do require my expertise. If you want to keep this young man alive for now as you say, then I suggest you had better start listening to what I have already instructed.”

Seline’s face was quickly turning purple with anger at how the doctor was speaking to him like some errant child or lowly educated servant. His temper was at an all time high, and if he had been wearing the small derringer pistol he owned inside his waistcoat, then he may have made the doctor rethink some of his choice words.

“You will receive my account by the end of the day that is due,” Rawlings commented, placing his hat on his head and walking out onto the deck outside the room. “Good day, I do not expect to be called upon again.”

“I will be damned if I allow you to set foot on this vessel for another moment, you conniving, over-rated quack!” Seline spluttered with rage, following the physician with heavy footsteps, but only finding his voice after the man reached the gang plank. When the doctor’s account came to be paid, he would take great pleasure it tearing into tiny shreds.

Seline walked purposefully back into the room in a huff, almost letting his anger out on the door.

In the short time that he was out of the room, Bonnie had gone about what she had been instructed to do, take care of Joe. She had been partially listening to the heated conversation between the doctor and her boss. She couldn’t be sure how much the young man had heard, but suspected some of the threatening words, not everything.

By the time the doctor had exited the room, the boy had fallen into a light doze, his stubbornness short-lived, and fatigue settling in. Without waiting for his permission, she adjusted the covers on the bed, watching his steely expression change. A few seconds more saw his facial features relax further with him drifting closer to sleep whether he wanted to or not.

Seline abruptly stood in the doorway, smarting from the choice accusations the doctor had thrown in his face. “Do whatever you have already been doing to get Cartwright back on his feet,” he ordered, taking the cigar out of his mouth. For a moment he had forgotten his own rule about speaking the boy’s correct name out loud, “I am not going to have Marie’s wretched offspring coddled like some baby.”

“I doubt he heard anything you said,” Bonnie stated, her tone having a sharper edge to it. “He has fallen asleep, and will probably remain so for a while. When he does wake, I will offer him food and encourage him to eat.” She silently reminded herself to hold her tongue better, not wanting to redirect and incur the man’s anger at the doctor.

Seline chose to ignore the way she had spoken, instead wanting the woman’s co-operation, and to emphasis and impress on her how rapidly things were going to change on-board.

“By tomorrow he should be much more improved, despite what that pompous, self-absorbed doctor believes. If the boy is still having those headaches, then I don’t want him wandering around on the boat on his own. I have plans to include him more here amongst my men and deliberately sow a few new seeds about his background. I want to reinforce what he gets told about the nightly gambling activities that go on around here.”

“From tomorrow morning everything is going to get a whole lot busier around here, including many people coming and going to take care of preparations for the opening night in a couple of days. There will be cooks, waiters, decorators, carpenters and a lot of cargo being brought aboard to be stored. There will also be other men carrying out other instructions as I give them. Don’t let any of that distract you from your duties here, I want the boy kept out of sight as much as possible unless I sent for him. Edwards and Yeager will be in charge of security.”

Bonnie nodded her head to signify that she understood what he expected of her. The man turned his back on her, exchanging a few words with Edwards and Yeager on the deck, before leaving the area entirely.

A sense of foreboding began to grow and knot in her own stomach about what lay ahead during the next few days.

____________________________________________________________________________________

Back at the hospital:

Ben Cartwright had closed the door to the parlor moments ago, and was lost in his own thoughts, only to be greeted by someone at the top of the staircase. The middle-aged, dark-haired woman was startled to come across another person on the second floor.

“Oh my stars!” the woman uttered in total surprise. “Good morning, I apologise for my lack of decorum and appearing to be jumping at shadows. I heard the door close and thought my mind was playing tricks on me,” she gave with a brief laugh which was quickly replaced with a warm smile.

“Good morning. Please forgive me, I did not wish to cause you alarm,” Ben greeted her with still holding his hat in one hand and politely extending the other courteously.

“That is quite alright, but I am afraid that I must insist that you tell me who you are,” the woman spoke in return. “My name is Gertrude Russell, and I am the Matron of this hospital. I did not see you enter through the front door downstairs and nobody is allowed to be up here. The ground floor of this building has been temporarily designated as a hospital, but the upper floors are deemed to be private property. The owner has yet to give permission for the rooms above the main floor to be used in any capacity for patients or doctors.”

“My name is Ben Cartwright, and I come here from many miles away in Nevada territory. I have a good parcel of land situated on the outskirts of Virginia City called the Ponderosa. Together with my three sons, a lot of hard work with our backs and bare hands, we raise cattle, harvest timber for the silver mines plus carry on a number of other profitable ventures.”

“You certainly have come such a long way, Mister Cartwright,” Gertrude remarked. “I wager that day to day life where you come from is very different from what you observe outside in the streets of New Orleans.” The nurse was able to detect a strong sense of pride in his voice as the man spoke of where he came from and what his family had been able to achieve.

Ben gave a small chuckle of his own, “Yes, I cannot deny that at all. Not too bad for someone who started out as a mere cabin boy aboard a clipper ship. Upon my last visit to your city, this grand home was in the possession of a very good friend of mine, René Angerville. My late wife, Marie De Marigny, stayed here for quite some time until we were married and she moved with me.”

“The first name you mentioned, Monsieur Angerville, I have heard before today,” the nurse commented. “The current owner, a Mister Ezekiel Thomas, purchased this building as part of an estate, but I am not familiar with all of the details. I have only met the gentleman on one occasion when the doctor was appointed here. I am sorry that I do not recognize your wife’s name at all.”

“That is quite alright, Mister Thomas is someone that I have not heard about or met before,” Ben replied, “I wasn’t aware until this morning that the building had been purchased by another party at all. After my wife passed away, I tried to use work on the ranch and taking care of my boys to cope with her loss. I had intended to keep in touch with my good friend, but unfortunately that did not eventuate either.”

“I am not sure if you remember, but in that room that I came out of, a painting used to hang above the fireplace,” Ben told her, his voice filling with a touch of emotion. “That was previously used as a drawing room, and at various times where Marie would play music on the piano.”

“I do remember a painting hanging there in the room, there was a horse in the background beside a young lady,” the nurse stated. “Mister Thomas had some of the more valuable chattels, pieces of furniture and rich tapestries packed away and store carefully in another part of the building to avoid them becoming damaged. You would have noticed of course that some of the furniture has only been covered to protect it rather than move them.”

“Yes, I did notice,” Ben answered with his voice taking. “The young woman in that portrait was Marie, with one of her favourite horse’s. That room holds some wonderful memories for me, and she spent more time in there than any other part of the house. I can recall the furnishings in there, just as they were. I guess for a moment when I walked there, I became lost and entangled in the nostalgia.”

The nurse could see that the man had been searching for some kind of lost connection by coming here this morning, and she could see the grief in his eyes as he spoke his wife’s name. “I hope you are not too disappointed to come all this way, only to see empty rooms or gaze upon a grand painting?”

“Unfortunately it is neither good times or nostalgia that is the purpose of my journey,” Ben elaborated. “My two eldest sons and I arrived on the train only this morning from San Francisco, but after we parted company, my feet directed me here.”

“You mentioned a few moments ago that you had three sons?” Matron Russell recounted, making sure that she had not misheard how many children the man had. “Did your youngest son choose to miss the journey and stay behind at your ranch in Nevada?”

“Yes, I did,” Ben went on to explain but his tone of voice turning more serious. “My sons, Adam and Hoss accompanied me on the train. Marie was the mother of my youngest son, Joseph, who is barely nineteen years of age. I strongly believe that Joe has been kidnapped and brought here to this city from San Francisco against his will and under false pretences. We have received information from an unknown source that he is being held somewhere as a prisoner. He was taken more than a week ago, and my sons and I have been following behind as quickly as we can to try and rescue him.

“That is dreadful news, Mister Cartwright,” Gertrude gasped out loud. “Who would do such a cowardly and dastardly thing to steal your son away from you? Such a young man too. You must be beside yourself with worry about what has happened to him. I sincerely hope he has not been hurt and you are able to find him quickly. Have you gone to the police?”

“Thank you for your concern, news has been received by us at various stages that he has indeed been hurt, and that the person responsible means to do him greater harm to get back at me for grievances that go back a long way,” the silver-haired man gave in reply. “From what we have been able to discover, that has been his intention all along. By taking Joseph away from his brothers and his home, he knows that he is causing me great anguish. I will do almost anything to see my boy returned to me safely, even though the risk to my own life is high.”

“In San Francisco, we were fortunate enough to have the assistance of the police as soon as we reported Joseph missing. There were a few clues that emerged, but alas they only brought up more questions than answers,” Ben explained. “We do know that the services of a doctor were employed before my son was smuggled out of the city. Unfortunately we don’t know the full extent of his involvement, or what treatment was performed, as that man met with a grisly demise at the hand of Joe’s kidnapper.”

The nurse’s hands came up to her mouth in shock as she attempted to stifled the gasp of shock at such a statement.

At some point Ben realised that he had given away and openly shared quite a lot of details about where he had come from, his boys, and even the current situation and circumstances surrounding Joe’s kidnapping. Normally he wouldn’t have been one to share such private information about his family, especially when the authorities were about to become involved. He had let his guard down in a place that held a mixture of memories, and allowed his own emotions to come to the surface. Perhaps it was this lady’s warm personality on this particular morning, where he found a woman with a caring nature and willingness to listen, that had made him speak so freely.

“Going to the police here in New Orleans will be my next step once we have acquired some suitable accommodations during our stay,” Ben continued. “That is where I sent my two sons after leaving the railway station. I want to set up a comfortable place to bring Joe back to once he has been rescued.”

“Being a city of mixed cultures, it may be that we will need the services of someone who is able to speak and understand the French language. Marie did try and teach me after we were married, and my eldest son, Adam, can speak a few phrases very well. But that may not be enough on this occasion when the stakes involve a person’s life. We will also require people who are more familiar with the back streets and other sordid places in this city where someone may be inclined to keep a prisoner.”

“Time is quickly running out for my son, and I do fear greatly for his safety,” Ben told the woman, as he took a step closer towards the stairs, realising that he needed to leave. “This may sound strange or even superstitious, and is perhaps no more than a foolish notion, but I have prayed to Marie a couple of times during our rushed travel. By coming here this morning, a small part of me was hoping that her spirit would help guide our endeavours to find Joseph.”

The woman’s eyes softened and she put a comforting hand on his forearm, “As a nurse, I am usually a very practical person when it comes to treating people and nursing them back to health. During my years of training and taking care of people, I have also seen a lot of strange things. Some that have occurred but cannot be explained, or others that would sound implausible to those claiming to be of sound mind. Do you know what I have learned the most in all the time that I have lived in New Orleans?”

“Tell me please?” he requested, knowing that the words she wanted to impart on him were important.

The woman took another breath, pleased to see that the man was listening to her words. “Kindness and compassion cost absolutely nothing, but are not in abundance like they once were. The demand for them grows even higher when it comes to our families and people that we care about. This city has her secrets, Mister Cartwright, there is no denying that. There is a soul and a heartbeat that are all her own. Extraordinary things and miracles can happen around here everyday when you least expect them.”

“Thank you for understanding,” Ben said with genuine gratitude. “Joseph was very small when his mother died and he misses her terribly. A hole was left in all our hearts. Most of the time my son tries to keep his pain hidden and his memories of her private. Those feelings about his mother are very strong, even in relation to things she owned that are now carefully stored away.”

“I can see that you have a great love for your son and shoulder the responsibility of wanting to protect him. When it comes to a mother’s love; that stays forever. Nothing can ever break that bond between a mother and her child, even unto death. Keep a whole lot of hope and faith alongside of you, and I know you will find him.”

“When he has been rescued and you have spent time together, please bring him here to see this place before you leave to go back home. I am sure that knowing she lived here for a time will bring him a great comfort, even if it is his first time,” the nurse suggested.

“Thank you, I certainly will,” Ben promised. “Adam and Hoss would be pleased to come and see this place too, once their brother has been found. Please allow me to escort you back downstairs,” he requested, holding out his arm as any gentleman should for a lady.

Nurse Russell gratefully accepted the offer, knowing that this man was a cut above some of the men she had encountered before. Manners, courtesy and well spoken; all traits that were becoming less noticeable in recent years. The Matron found her own curiosity about this family from Nevada growing.

________________________________________________________________________________

As they made their way down the polished wooden steps, the conversation turned more casual. The whole place was eerily quiet considering the time of day.

“Forgive my questioning of your duties in a small hospital such as this, but are you the only nursing staff employed here?” Ben asked.

“Yes, for the moment,” the matron answered without hesitation. “There is only one doctor and myself, although that may not be the case for much longer. The man appointed to the position is hoping to gain employment at the larger hospital, St Mercy. It is situated a lot closer to the city centre and is currently undergoing major expansion and renovations.”

“Some days I would dearly love some assistance around here as there is usually more work to do than two pair of hands can accommodate,” Nurse Russell admitted. “I am not getting any younger in years myself, and I don’t know what would happen to the people who do rely on being able to come here. I wish I could pass along my experience to someone else younger like some generous nursing staff did for me when I first started.”

“I do think the owner, Mr Thomas was hoping to create a clinic here that would cater to a different class of people. Those who perhaps don’t have the means to spend on a doctor for themselves or their children,” Gertrude commented. “The people in this area of the city work hard, but to others are seen as having the wrong colour skin or judged because they come from a poor background. Those things shouldn’t matter when it comes to wanting to be well or see your children live a healthy life.”

Ben nodded his head in acknowledgement at her words, seeing that she truly cared about caring for people, not just about whether they could afford to pay for a doctor or not. “The problems about people’s skin colour and different cultural background don’t just occur here, but perhaps are noticed more with a larger population. We have some of the same troubles in Virginia City with the Chinese workers who have arrived in town. There are quite a few Indian tribes who try and maintain their traditions in many patches across the territory. There are many people of different races who are looking for work and travel to Nevada to seek their fortunes in the mines.”

By the time Ben and the Matron reached the bottom steps, any conversation between them was interrupted by the opening of the front door to the building. The figure of a tall thin man entered, removing his hat and carrying it alongside the small black medical bag in his right hand.

“Good morning, Doctor,” Nurse Russell greeted him respectfully, but became worried about his outer appearance and slow gait. “My, you do look worn out. I was expecting to see you last night. I hope everything is alright?”

The Doctor held out his black bag for her to take, “Morning, Matron. I am afraid I have not had a chance yet to survey the contents inside to establish what items need replenishing.”

“Oh there is no need for you to worry about that,” Gertrude responded. “Things have been fairly quiet around here since noon yesterday, and I have a few hours spare hours on my hands this afternoon. I will attend to taking stock of what needs to be replaced.”

The Doctor gave her a tired, small smile of appreciation, “What would I do without you looking after me, Gertrude?” he asked warmly, foregoing all protocols of how they should be addressing each other in the presence of other people.

The nurse returned the smile and a laugh with him using her first name rather than her title, knowing that it would be frowned upon in larger hospitals. Here in this smaller place where the two of them often worked side by side, she didn’t mind at all.

“You will be pleased to know that mother and child have both survived admirably, but it wasn’t until the early hours of this morning that I could be more certain about that outcome,” Rawlings informed her. “Whilst I was there, I was told that I was needed by another patient, which is where I have just come from now. I am sorry I was gone a long time without getting word to you.”

“That is very pleasing to hear, you did mention that Mrs Simpson may have a difficult birth,” the Matron commented. “There have only been a few people come here with minor ailments during your absence. I was able to successfully treat them and send them home again.”

Ben had been patiently standing by this whole time during the exchange between doctor and nurse. Gertrude glanced briefly in his direction after seeing the curious look on the doctor’s face at the stranger.

“Heavens, would you both please forgive my oversight. Mister Ben Cartwright, this is Doctor Hector Rawlings, the appointed physician,” the woman introduced, embarrassed that she had not done so promptly.

“Good Morning, Doctor,” Ben greeted the man, extending his hand. “I don’t plan to take up your valuable time.”

“Morning, Mister Cartwright, pleased to make your acquaintance,” Rawlings returned, completing the handshake, impressed by the strength and confidence of the man before him. “What business brings you here today? Mister Cartwright did you say?” repeating the man’s surname so that he wasn’t mistaken.

Nurse Russell spoke before Ben could offer his own reply. “Ben Cartwright has come here all the way from Nevada territory with two of his sons. This building holds special meaning to him and his family and he wished to see it again. He was hoping for permission to show some of the rooms to his youngest son, Joseph.” The Matron thought it prudent to leave out details of the young man’s disappearance and that he was still currently missing.

Both names certainly drew the doctor’s attention, and after coming from the paddle-steam boat only a short time ago, he could only wonder if there was any correlation. He didn’t alter the expression on his face, but could see resoluteness starting back at him through brown eyes. The first name given of Joseph certainly piqued his interest. He had not told the Matron the name of the second patient that he had finished treating after Mrs Simpson, nor his whereabouts.

Rawlings knew that Marchant had concocted a false story for the boy’s background and that included changing his surname. Although he didn’t know the full purpose of Seline’s rouse, instinct told him that the scoundrel was intending to use the young man’s memory loss to his own advantage. But the man had also slipped up and called out the boy’s real name as he was leaving.

“Why is your son not here with you if you are wanting to show him around?” the doctor asked, noting that the man seemed to be here on his own. “I have no objections to giving the permission you seek, but I will leave you in Matron’s capable hands. Please excuse my rudeness, I have been tending to a mother and child for the past twenty four hours. I need to get some sleep before I attend to my other patients.”

“That is quite alright, Doctor,” Ben answered, but didn’t elaborate further about why Joe wasn’t accompanying him. “Thank you for your generosity, I understand you have a busy schedule to keep and people counting on you. Rest well.”

Nurse Russell frowned a little, thinking that Doctor Rawlings was acting a little odd, if not peculiar and quite out of character today, even though there were tell-tale signs of fatigue on his face and in his posture.

The doctor began to slowly climb the staircase towards his personal quarters, not wanting to give himself away about having vital information pertaining to the man’s son. He was able to overhear the few final words they were exchanging.

“Please forgive his manner this morning, Mister Cartwright, he does some good work here, but sometimes forgets that people in his demanding position also need to take care of themselves,” Gertrude shared.

“There is no need to apologise, Matron,” Ben assured her, politely kissing her hand, getting ready to say goodbye and depart the premises. “I am sure he is a busy man, and he does provide an important service to the people here.”

“I pray that you will find your son very soon,” she offered, giving his hand a small squeeze in friendly comfort. “You, Joseph and your other two sons will be most welcome back here for a visit at any time. I should like to meet all of your family once you are all reunited.”

“I promise that I will return when Joseph is located safe and sound and before we leave this city for home,” Ben pledged. “Thank you for all your kindness this morning, I fear I have already taken up too much of your valuable time.”

“Nonsense, Mister Cartwright, talking to you today has been a delight and taken away the boredom from what would have been a mundane day of chores,” she replied with a smile. “We will meet again.”

Continuing his way to the stop of the stairs out of sight, Rawlings couldn’t help but think to himself that Seline may be in for a bit of a shock to learn that the boy’s family had not given up hope in finding him yet. From what he had observed first-hand, they were actively searching for him and any clues that would pertain to his whereabouts. The father he had met seemed to be focused on finding his son, and didn’t appear to be a man who would be easily diverted from that task.

____________________________________________________________________________________

After leaving the railway station and watching their father walk in the opposite direction, the two Cartwright brothers continued on foot in a westerly direction. Their intentions were to find suitable lodgings that would accommodate all of them, even Joe once he was found. Once that matter had been settled, a livery stable was the next place on their short list to find, where they could rent some horses for the duration of their stay in the city.

“How far do we have to walk, Adam?” Hoss asked. The distance wasn’t a problem, but the larger man couldn’t help but feel awkward and out of place.

“A few city sized blocks at least, Hoss, but don’t worry, I already have one place in mind,” Adam answered cryptically. He had noted his siblings unease and knew it was the reason behind the question.

“You do? That would be great, Adam,” Hoss replied with a grin, putting his complete trust in his brother’s knowledge of being able to navigate these busy streets much better. He couldn’t deny that he found himself in very unfamiliar surroundings. The crowds of people began to swell with larger numbers than he could have ever contemplated.

In addition to the people, there were dozens of horse drawn carriages and wagons. Buckboards and single horse-drawn buggys, all attempting to criss-cross the main street intersection at the same time. Anybody watching the confusion and chaos long enough was liable to get dizzy Hoss silently told himself.

“I guessed it would be different when we got here from the train, but I don’t think I expected it to be quite like this,” Hoss mentioned to his brother.

“Enjoy the city, Hoss, don’t let the faceless crowds detract from the grandeur,” Adam commented. “There is a lot to take in on someone’s first visit. With a little patience, after awhile, the noise of the crowds fades into the background and the people fade into the distance. What you are left with is a place that has a long history, where there is something new to discover at every street corner. Where the architecture of each building has a different story to tell.”

Turning the corner, Adam wanted to alleviate his brother’s misgivings by explaining where they were. “Hoss, this is Canal Street, one of the main thoroughfares or artery of this city. That rather large white building you can see on the left-hand side in front of us, is the St Charles Hotel. That is our first point of call to find somewhere to stay tonight.”

Hoss looked at where Adam was pointing, but wasn’t convinced about the choice. “You mean to tell me that we are going in there to ask if they have a room to rent?” His mind began to over-think what kind of price they could be expected to pay, but one could assume that there was a bank in this city when they needed to withdraw sufficient funds. Leaving the Ponderosa as quickly as they did, Pa had more important things on his mind than procuring additional money.

“A place like that would have more than rooms,” Adam responded. “They will have elegant chambers and adjoining suites on more than one floor, and probably more than one rising room so that we won’t have to walk up so many stairs. More than enough space for all of us.”

“A rising room?” Hoss asked, adjusting the collar of his shirt to mask his nervousness. He didn’t like the idea of those things, and had only experienced one of them in San Francisco. Oddly enough, that was an earlier occasion when Joe had become separated from his family and lost in different city. His brother had been quite a bit younger at only nine years old on that particular escapade.

“Somehow, I think I would prefer to climb those stairs with my own two feet,” Hoss stated firmly, pulling his hat down on his head for emphasis.

“Let’s get there and see what they can offer first,” Adam suggested, noting that Hoss was almost ready to plant his feet obstinately in the middle of the street and not move any closer. “We need to find somewhere to stay for Pa. You can plainly see for yourself that he hasn’t exactly been sleeping well since we started this journey from Virginia City. When we do find Joe, I think it is fair to assume that he may be looking for a nice, soft place to lay his head down and sleep for a day or two.”

Adam knew he was goading Hoss forward with a little guilt, but he was trying to use just the right amount of incentive without over doing it. He was counting on inducing a little more co-operation by mentioning their need to take care of Joe and their father. Hoss had rarely been able to deny his baby brother anything, especially when he was hurt or needed someone fighting in his corner. The tiredness that both had seen on their father’s drawn features was already making them want to shoulder more of the burden and responsibility of finding Little Joe.

The eldest Cartwright brother was mindful though and knew that he would need to keep an eye on this younger sibling too, for completely different reasons. Hoss’ apprehension was unexpected, but valid and understandable. They needed to work together at the moment towards a common and positive outcome. Both of them needed to maintain a clear head and have their wits about them until they could learn more clues as to Joe’s whereabouts.

Coming to stand in front of the large hotel building, one couldn’t deny its impressive size and expanse. The huge Corinthian white marble columns rose to great heights from the street level up to the roof, six in total and a very imposing facade.

“Quite the place wouldn’t you say?” Adam remarked as he stood behind his brother’s beefy left shoulder, watching Hoss’ gaze up and down at the marble colossus.

“I reckon it might be to some folks,” Hoss agreed, but the feeling of being out of place had only quadrupled. He didn’t want bring into question Adam’s usually reliable judgement, and therefore kept any comments to himself.

The two brothers moved out of the direct path of people who were disembarking from various forms of transport with the assistance of valets. No doubt their sole duty was to formerly greet the passengers and potential customers as they arrived, before ushering them along the fine rich carpet that lead up to the marbled steps of the front entrance. Each one of them was smartly dressed in fancy navy suits, featuring gold brocade on the fitted jackets and tailored pants. The professional uniforms were completed with top hats worn on their heads and polished black shoes on their feet.

Another set of uniformed footmen were unloading large numbers of baggage consisting of suitcases, carpetbags, heavy chests and trunks. These luggage items would then be packed on ornately decorated brass trolleys or carried inside before then being delivered to the bellhops and interior hotel staff. The scene playing out before them was like a pantomime where each person was a character on stage in a performance. Except this was a normal day in a city the size of New Orleans, with the customers dressed in their finest, out on public display.

The comings and goings of the various buggy’s, horse-drawn vehicles and an ever growing number of pedestrians was even more chaotic here then it had been outside the railway station. Some people appeared to have no patience at all and were clambering loudly to gain the attention of the hotel staff over the top of other citizens. A dozen conversations or more could be heard happening all at once with pushing, shoving, and demanding unrealistic expectations, seemingly the order of the day.

“Don’t worry, Hoss, this is not much different to nights back at home in the Bucket O’ Blood saloon when the miners get paid, or the days following a long round up with the ranch hands,” Adam appeased, seeing that Hoss was less than impressed with some of the behaviour. These folks would be the first to call themselves civilised, but to him a whole lot of common sense and waiting graciously in turn was sorely lacking today.

Adam thought the best way to counteract the frown on his brother’s face was to provide him with a little history of the hotel that he had learned through a number of sources.

“The original place was built in 1837, but was destroyed by fire less than ten years ago in January 1851. There was a huge matching dome turret on the roof in the original building, but they didn’t put it back in the design this time around,” Adam explained. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Hoss was facing him and starting to listen, so he continued.

A split second later, Hoss’ attention was momentarily distracted by a team of horses pulling in not too far away, churning up dust and debris. The driver was calling out instructions to a number of the hotel staff in a gruff tone of voice, but they were yelling back about his disregard for public safety of other people standing nearby and getting showered by plumes of choking dust.

“Do you know how much it cost to complete the renovations afterwards?” Adam queried patiently. His efforts were rewarded with Hoss turning back to hear his question, waiting for the answer. His brother knew all about building and architecture.

“Over eight hundred thousand dollars,” Adam recited slowly so that the size of hefty sum could sink in. “Almost a million dollars. The first build wasn’t much cheaper either.”

Hoss scoffed at the large number his brother had quoted, trying to figure out in his mind how many zeroes that acquainted to, “Who has access to that kind of money? I can’t even fathom anybody being able to amass that much wealth, Adam.”

“Let’s hope with that amount of money involved, this second version lasts much longer,” Adam remarked. “Come on, we have standing around here too long now. Time to climb those stairs and approach the reception desk,” he encouraged.

The two brothers made their way to the bottom of the exterior marble staircase, a number of the staff greeting them politely with “Good Morning, Sir” as they went about their duties.

“Never been called “Sir” so many times on one day in my entire life,” Hoss declared. Adam had a small grin on his face as his brother’s discomfort at being addressed in such a formal manner. He decided to add a few more trivial facts about the hotel as they climbed up towards the entrance.

“This place is reported to have over four hundred rooms across a number of floors. Enough space for between six hundred and seven hundred guests at any one time,” Adam filled in. “Thirty parlour rooms alone, and at least one hundred individual bathrooms. I think you will agree with me about the grand scale that everything seems to be done by. There is no mistaking it’s presence compared to all the other building on either side of the street.”

Hoss didn’t know how to respond to such outlandish and bold claims of luxury and decadence. He had never heard of that many people staying in one building at one time. And one hundred bathrooms? Surely that was an over-exaggeration or pure estimation.

As the reached the top of the flight of stairs, Hoss repeated his earlier question, “This is still where you are thinking we want to stay?”

“Sure, we will approach the Concierge and ask if they have any rooms suitable for us,” Adam replied. “We don’t need the real fancy ones. Something comfortable for all four of us for a few days. Visitors to this city come to this particular hotel from far and wide, and sometimes a booking is required beforehand.”

Hoss looked down at the travel clothes he was wearing, then looked about at the gentlemen and ladies who were bustling about nearby. Although he felt dressed up by wearing more than his usual work clothes, he couldn’t help but compare his wardrobe as they continued to pass by. He felt very inadequate and odd, even more so with his gunbelt not strapped around his waist.

Adam had walked a little further in front and had yet to notice that he was on his own when approaching the lobby. Hoss decided to stay where he was and try not to get in anybody’s way. His brother would be better at enquiring and gaining a room anyhow.

The outside facade had been impressive, but that grandeur was certainly carried on inside as well. The marble polished floors inlaid with coloured tiles that formed intricate and elaborate patterns. Even the very columns had been replicated, with a series of them standing proudly and spaced evenly throughout the vast expansive interior. The building was certainly much bigger than any place Hoss had been in before anywhere.

By merely turning his head in any direction, his gaze was drawn to an array of polished wooden panels, brass and copper ornate fixtures and fittings. The ceilings were accented by gargantuan chandeliers that bathed everything with the right amount of lighting and add significantly to the richness of the décor. Adam would have used his knowledge of poetic words to describe the hotel as having an avant-garde flavour. To Hoss, elegant and luxurious were the two words that came to mind.

From this vantage point, Hoss couldn’t see everything inside the hotel, including the proposed rising rooms that Adam had hinted at earlier. There were other features to note though, such as uniquely carved and sweeping staircases that probably lead up to the upper floors. He suspected there was even more to see with wonderment if he wanted to venture further inside. A piano could be heard playing a soft melody of music in the background.

The windows were covered and draped in curtains made from heavy, plush patterned fabrics. Tapestries and paintings covered nearly every inch of the walls, along with statues and sculptures displayed on evenly spaced marble pedestals. Large vessels containing leafy green plants were scattered about, some of them even covered with delicately scented flowers.

From where he was standing, a second large room was partitioned off with coloured stained-glass windows, and a matching door on the front. Inside there were chairs, and round tables set with fancy tablecloths, white china plates, silver cutlery and fine glassware; all laid out and ready for service. The restaurant or dining room he surmised, not realising that there was more than one belonging to the hotel, each catering differently to the guests.

Hoss stomach growled hungrily, reminding him that he had not eaten since getting off the train and it was almost eleven o’clock in the morning. Maybe he could wait and see what they brought out from the kitchen for lunch.

________________________________________________________________________

Some distance away at reception, Adam was standing, waiting politely to approach the staff at the front desk to make his availability enquiry. He had noticed a curious look from a number of the gentlemen present at his attire, but chose not to engage with them. He tipped his hat at a couple of the ladies, greeting them with ‘good morning’ in his deep baritone voice, receiving prompt and courteous replies with shy smiles from behind gloved hands.

Once the crowd had begun thinning out, a tall gentleman gestured for Adam to come closer towards the oak reception desk, “Good morning, Sir, how may I be of service to you today?”

Adam removed his black hat, “Good morning, my name is Adam Cartwright. My brother and I would like to make enquiries about a room that may have that would be adequate for four adult men to stay…….,” he started to explain, but halted half-way through as he saw the man looking dubiously on either side and behind him.

“Your brother?” the man with a shock of red hair queried, seeing only a single person standing before him. ‘At times the strangest of guests passed through the halls of this hotel’ he thought to himself.

Adam turned and now understood why the man had briefly given him a strange look. At some point, Hoss had decided to stop and not follow. “Please excuse me for a moment.” Walking away from the reception desk, he realised that the hand of fate had stepped in and made this decision, not only Hoss. They may need to make other arrangements of where to stay if his brother felt so uncomfortable.

Casually leaning against a marble column support for the downstairs restaurant, Hoss watched a small man with a blond moustache, carry a decorative black wrought iron easel. He proceeded to stand the ornate framework off to one side of the double mahogany wooden doors, making a few minute adjustments until he was completely satisfied with its final position. He was wearing a uniform similar to the valet’s outside, but with a different colour and wider collar adorning the front of the jacket. Despite his lack of stature, it was obvious he took his job very seriously. On the stand, the man carefully placed a crisp white sheet of card with black elegant print on it.

A menu’ Hoss thought with a small amount of delight. Perhaps the journey here would not turn out so awkwardly after all. Unfortunately, he made the mistake of taking a step towards the easel before the man had walked away completely. Finding himself under an unwelcome glare of rebuke and receiving a sharply toned admonishment.

“Monsieur, s’il vous plaît retirez votre chapeau,” the hotel employee requested.

Hoss had not understood a single word the man had said to him; the words coming out garbled and not even sounding like they were in English to him.

“Listen little fella, I don’t know what you said to me just now……………,” he began to reply but trying to be co-operative and not wanting to cause a scene. Hoss halted when the man attempted to step away from him, but still giving a fresh look of disapproval for good measure.

Adam had heard and understood the complaint, coming up silently behind his brother, and with one swift movement of his hand, corrected the problem. Even before Hoss had the chance to ask the man to repeat what he wanted.

“Sir, please remove your hat,” Adam translated for his brother. “Though in your defence, he was speaking French.”

“Oh, sorry, I plum forgot,” Hoss apologised with abashment, accepting the return of his hat and holding it by the brim in his hand. He was used to taking if off back in Virginia City whenever he went indoors, but his attention this morning had been drawn elsewhere upon entering this establishment.

With the offending head-wear successfully removed to his satisfaction, the small man had disappeared back to his duties elsewhere in the hotel without saying another word.

“I thought you were going to follow me to the reception desk?” Adam chastised lightly. “I looked a little foolish standing back there on my own, after introducing myself and mentioning that I was travelling with a brother.”

“Dang it! Sorry about that, Adam,” Hoss voiced, looking down at his hat, not quite knowing how else to explain why he had felt the need to stay behind. His facial expression changed to one of feeling guilty and being suitably chastised.

Astutely Adam could see the reason for himself, “For the record, after giving the matter enough due consideration, I don’t think this place is really for us to stay here either,” he remarked. He was pleased to see his comment bring a smile to his brother’s face.

“You don’t ?” Hoss questioned, but grateful that his brother had a complete change of heart. “Where are we going find somewhere for us to stay tonight then?”

“Oh, I am sure we can find somewhere,” Adam replied reassuringly, noting that a shred of guilt was beginning to overshadow Hoss’ brief moment of elation at needing to change their plans.

“I was about to take a look at that piece of paper the little guy left there,” Hoss admitted. Upon closer inspection of the writing though, his facial expression changed as embarrassment set in about not being able to read a single word.

“Don’t feel bad, Hoss, with such a large French connection to this city, the dishes were bound to be printed in that language,” Adam surmised. “Do you want me to translate them for you?”

“If you don’t mind,” Hoss agreed, feeling like a heel and having to rely on his brother’s knowledge too much already today. “I was beginning to feel a little peckish is all,” he mumbled.

“Well let’s see what they are having then,” Adam obliged, knowing that time was getting away from them. There were still a few tasks they needed to accomplish this morning before meeting their father at the designated rendezvous. None of them had eaten yet and missing meals was probably the one of those few times that Hoss was known for being more vocal.

Reading down the menu for himself, Adam turned to his brother with an apologetic expression on his face, “I think you are going to be disappointed with their selection they are offering today, Hoss.”

“They are having food aren’t they?” Hoss challenged, “Even the folks around here gotta eat sometime.”

Adam could see that the wasn’t going to be able to sway his brother easily, so he decided on the direct approach. Standing in front of the ornate framed stand and bending over to account for the height difference, he began to read from the very top of the menu. As he went, he gave the French name of the dish, followed by a description of the food in English.

Cuisses de Grenouille – Frogs Legs, lightly fried in clarified butter, and served with a creamy sauce.

Hoss’ grip on his hat increased dramatically and his mouth gaped open as he tried to grapple with a very different cuisine than what he was used to eating at the Ponderosa.

‘Who ever heard of eating a frog? Can’t be much meat on them little critters to begin with’

Adam hid a wry grin at the look on his brother’s face. Unfortunately he could see that the next few dishes were not going to appeal to him any better.

Escargot – Snails, gently sautéd in a delicately flavoured herb butter and garlic reduction.

‘Snails! They could usually be found in Hop Sing’s gardens, ruining the cabbages. Never once in his whole life did he think of cooking and eating one.

Hoss was starting to get annoyed by his brother’s antics and was convinced that he was being made fun of, “Stop deliberately making stuff up, Adam!”

“I promise you that I am reading direct from the menu,” Adam answered truthfully, but as he took a look at the next menu item, this time couldn’t scarcely hold back his laughter and knew that Hoss was not going to be impressed with the next dish.

Ox Tripe Provencale – Tripe with fettuccine, served with steamed potatoes and garnished with parsley.

Adam was sure that his brother’s face was several shades paler, as Hoss closed his mouth and swallowed nervously.

Being from a cattle raising family, he certainly knew what tripe was, and it was one of those foods that he refused to eat. “What is fetta…., that other word you said?”

“Pasta,” Adam replied helpfully. “An Italian staple. Quite tasty, but it may not have been served in any establishment where you have dined before.”

“Adam, if you don’t start reading that thing right, I am going to throwing up the lunch I haven’t even eaten yet,” Hoss whispered with grave warning. He could feel his stomach rolling at the very thought of any of those dishes on the menu.

Un Plateaude de Fromages – A platter of the finest selection of cheeses available from the local area. Served with a suggested wine.

“Cheese?” Hoss mouthed with dismay and disdain. A dislike for one particular food item that was a well kept secret in the Cartwright family.

“Isn’t there anything normal to eat in this city?” Hoss grouched, revolted by the offerings on the menu. Right now I could eat a whole half a steer on my own and still have room for dessert. I ain’t had a bite since supper last night and I am famished, but I am not eating one dang thing of any plate in this place when I can’t read or say it’s name.”

“Come on Adam, we have to find a real place to stay, where you don’t have to use the whole alphabet to spell out your supper. Joe probably wouldn’t eat half of that stuff spelled out on that piece of paper any more than me. I doubt they are feeding him right anyhow so he must be right hungry by now.”

Hoss turned away from the restaurant and started walking purposefully towards the cavernous front entrance. He had heard enough, but felt a hand on the back of his shirt. Adam waited until he had stopped walking and was willing to turn around and face him before speaking.

“Once we find a good place to stay, I will make sure to find something to eat that will appeal more to your appetite,” Adam assured him. “You are right, we have to find somewhere to stay, meet up with Pa. Then we can focus and double our efforts on finding Joe. Time is quickly getting away from us this morning.”

Adam decided to share some casual conversation to take his brother’s mind off his empty stomach, knowing that he was worried about their younger sibling. They all were and that was the reason the subject quickly turned back to Joe.

“Pa might be able to afford to stay at this fancy place, but I don’t reckon he would feel right about doing that any more than me,” Hoss asserted. “Joe wouldn’t like to stay in a place like this either too long.”

Adam pondered that statement for a moment, “Oh, I don’t know, I am sure at first our baby brother would be happy to be taken in by the luxuriousness that we have seen for ourselves today. Do you remember how he reacted to the private guests rooms that we were allocated at the Governor’s estate in Texas?”

“Yeah,” Hoss remembered with a fond grin. “He was jumping around on those feather mattresses that first night like he had never slept on one so soft before. That was ten years ago though and he was a little tyke back then. Joe has stayed in some much rougher places since then; even been forced to sleep on the floor without any bed or blankets.”

The brothers shared a smile at the memory, but that quickly evaporated as the peril that Joe had been in on that trip was refreshed in their minds and could not be easily forgotten. Unfortunately, stark similarities of the danger their sibling was facing could be drawn with the precarious circumstances he had fallen into with Seline.

“I am inclined to agree with you that he would quickly feel out of place as much as you. Joe might be happy to indulge at first, but he would quickly be deterred by being expected to wear something more appropriate than his beloved green jacket,” Adam responded. “Besides, he would only be wanting to make sure that Cochise was being taken care of, and sneaking downstairs to check on the animal all the time.”

The two brothers chuckled quietly over Joe’s particular brand of care about his horse, and the lengths he would go for her. It was a well known subject back on the Ponderosa and around Virginia City, often drawing a well placed joke or two. Although it was good to have a small distraction away from the restaurant, they were getting side-tracked again from the task at hand.

Adam was aware they had not discussed the prospect that Seline may demand a sizeable ransom for Joe’s return on the journey thus far. Somehow he was convinced that that Seline had entirely different agenda in mind for Joe’s safe return rather than wanting money. Until now, a slow chain of clues and misinformation had been gathered, tormenting at each turn that they were gaining ground.

With Joe still missing, there was no real way of measuring how close they were getting, and to be totally truthful, by travelling to New Orleans, it felt as though they were chasing their tails. Seline had already demonstrated that he was capable of being conniving, secretive and manipulative, with little regard for the people used in his schemes or the methods he was prepared to employ. The murdered doctor in San Francisco was a prime example.

Ben Cartwright of course, would be willing to mortgage everything he owned, including the Ponderosa. Their father would sell every single asset for the safe return of any one of his sons. This unpredictable adversary would be demanding more than any of them may be able to pay and extract a much higher price for the life of his prisoner. Seline was putting into place a meticulously planned out and uncompromising plan of revenge.

______________________________________________________________________________________

Exiting the St Charles Hotel, the two brothers were greeted with bright sunshine and another growing crowd of passengers arriving, loaded down with an endless load of baggage and trunks. The hotel staff were not going to get a moment’s rest today as they hurried off once more to carry out their duties under the scrutiny of their demanding patrons.

“I feel kinda sorry for those fellas, dressed up like they were trained monkeys, stuck doing the same thing over and over again, day after day,” Hoss commented. “Ain’t no way for any man to make a decent living, but I guess things are a lot different around here.”

“A little too mundane for me as well, but I suspect some of them do enjoy their work. They probably don’t get paid very much, but no doubt they are proud to bring home money to support their families each week,” Adam replied. “Times are hard all over, not just out on the ranches and in the mines at home. Everybody is competing against each other for a handle full of crumbs.”

“Come on, we need to find a mode of transportation for ourselves…….,” Adam began to say, but then spotted a shock of hair in the crowd that drew his attention. “Our wish may have just been granted,” he added cryptically as he started walking towards the crowd.

“I thought we were finding somewhere to stay,” Hoss called out, trying to keep track of his brother’s black hat in the middle of the oncoming people. He excused himself as a number of people rudely pushed their way passed him. By the time he had a chance to look forward again, Adam was nowhere to be seen.

“Adam! Where are you?” Hoss shouted over everyone’s head, only to receive a few scathing looks for his trouble.

An older, plump woman wearing a dark green dress and matching bonnet stopped in front of him, barely reaching the height of his broad chest. Disapproval was written across her face at his outburst as she made a point to berate him, “Young man, there is certainly no need to raise your voice outside in public to that level.”

Hoss looked suitably chastised, removing his hat before offering an apology, “Sorry ma’am, I was trying to find my brother…..,” but by then woman had turned away and moved on, not even slightly interested in listening to any reason he was giving in his own defence. Life around this city travelled at a very different pace to what he was used to, and the rudeness and indifference of people towards their neighbour was becoming very unpleasant.

Before he had the chance to let the unfriendly surrounds bring him down further, Hoss was startled by the sound of someone else shouting out above the sea of people.

Craning his neck to get a better view towards the sound, he listened intently, convinced that he had heard the voice somewhere before.

“Out of the way you people, can’t you see the man is trying to get through here,” a thick Irish accent demanded. “Come on, be quick about it, make a path, there is hardly any room to breathe.”

A man belonging to that voice found his way through the crowd and was now talking directly to Hoss, “I am sorry about that Mr Cartwright, some of the folk around here need a few lessons in good manners as you can plainly see.”

For a moment, Hoss stared back in confusion at the man chatting to him, scarcely able to believe that it was the same person they had come across earlier this morning. The man’s friendly disposition was completely different to the diminutive woman. He couldn’t help but give a lopsided grin in return.

After seeing the unspoken question written across his brother’s face, Adam came up along side of him, speaking softly into his ear. “I spotted him unloading a group of passengers as we were making our way out of the hotel. Unfortunately we don’t have much choice at the moment of finding someone who knows the city better than we do. This may be a curse or a mixed blessing in disguise,” he casually remarked.

Hoss nodded in head in agreement, some luck or good fortune shining on them from somewhere would be most welcome. This fellow had given a good account of himself of being able to get people around the city. This was the taxi-driver that he had separated from the wagon teamster at the railway station. Before he could say too much more, the man reintroduced himself.

The man was sporting a bruise above his right eyebrow, a reward from the scuffle he had gotten mixed up in. Right at this particular moment, any bitterness from that encounter had been forgotten as he held out his hand, wearing a smile on his face, “Doyle…..Seamus Doyle, at your service. I know we may have gotten off on the wrong foot this morning, but I promise to treat you and your family right and help you out.”

The man’s attitude had definitely changed from when they had crossed paths at the railway station. Their father had not been impressed with his antics either, but chose to turn the tables in their favour and gain some valuable information. Adam must have taken a page from his father’s book and changed his mind too since the man had been less than happy with the coin payment he had received for clues about Joe’s movements after the train.

Hoss obliged, completing the friendly gesture of a handshake as his curiosity came out in the form of a question, “What are you doing around these streets?” Hearing the question spoken out loud, he was worried that the driver might take offence.

Catching himself too late, he wanted to make sure that he wasn’t misunderstood, “I didn’t mean nothin’ by that,” he gave in apology. He had not meant to directly imply that the driver came from a lower working class. There were unwritten expectations from a city where the population was often segregated by race, economic status and ethnicity.

The driver didn’t take offence at such a label, instead speaking to them on friendly terms. “This is part of me job,” the Irish man declared with pride. “Picking up all those there passengers from the railway station and the stage coach stops and taking ’em wherever they desire to go. Every so often I am fortunate, and it happens to be to fancy places like the Saint Charles.”

Doyle continued to explain his day to day itinerary and to give a word of warning. “It’s like this you see, I like helpin’ new visitors to our fair city, but like those such as yourselves, they aren’t always aware of the tricks that are waiting to happen to them. Not everybody in New Orleans is as honest as I am, and would just as soon hand any one of you over to the local constabulary if they thought they could make a quid out your misfortune. Heed my words and be careful wherever you travel to because there are people waiting to profit off your disadvantage and lack of local knowledge.”

“There are really folk here that would do that?” Hoss questioned, knowing that he fell into the group of people that the driver was talking about falling foul of false intentions. “Hand you into the police like you said just now?”

“Every single day,” Seamus answered plainly and without hesitation. “Does everybody go by the rules where you are from?”

Hoss looked down at his feet before giving his reluctant reply, using one boot to scrap the dust and dirt off with the heal of the other, “I guess not.” There were a lot of good folks from Nevada Territory, including those who enforced the law.

Normally he was willing to give someone the benefit of the doubt and trust that they were true to their word. Honesty and having belief in a man’s handshake were strong traits he looked for and lived by, but a lot of people saw things that way. There had been some unscrupulous people in Virginia City in the past, and quite a few more that he could think of that would rather see you in Sheriff Coffee’s jail house. If he put his mind to it, he could come up with quite a few examples of people who would do others harm without any regard for the misery that it caused.

Adam cleared his throat, reminding the driver to move on from the current topic of discussion to the other purpose. Whilst maintaining eye contact with their new found Irish friend, he informed Hoss about what had already discussed and agreed upon. “Mr Doyle here has generously offered to help us find all that we need, a livery stable, somewhere to stay and perhaps guide us through the messy network of streets; for sufficient payment of course.”

Seamus took the hint, giving a slight nod at the arrangements to the man dressed in black, “Your brother, Adam, tells me that both of you are lookin’ for a different kind of lodgings? Can’t say that I blame you at all. Goodness me, it would take me a whole half a year to be able to afford walkin’ in the front door of the grand place,” the driver commented, choosing to leave out the subject of money.

“Our Pa will be wanting to join us,” Hoss quickly added. “We had better get a move on, Adam, he will be expecting to meet us down near the waterfront at that Nest place.” He couldn’t quite remember the name.

“The Captain’s Nest,” Adam recited. “Yes he was, but I suspect that we should have plenty of time to rendezvous with him. I have a fairly good hunch where he was headed to,” he said cryptically. Hoss have been told before, but being the older sibling he had a better recollection of his father’s past association with Marius Angerville and where he first met Joe’s mother, Marie.

“Aye, I know the place you be talking about,” Doyle did not mask his skeptical expression. “Are you sure the name you heard is the right one? Your father could have meant somewhere else a bit more hospitable for folks from out of town. Forgive me for saying it out loud, but that is not the kind of place I would be tellin’ people about in regular conversation.”

“Come along with me, and you can tell me rest of your troubles along as I show you the way towards a place I know about,” Seamus suggested, gesturing for them to board his taxi. Both brothers followed the driver back to where his buggy was standing. The two horses were calmly standing by, awaiting the next instruction.

_________________________________________________________________________

Joining the other buggy’s and other transportation on the street, the Cartwright brothers were pleased to have the driver’s expertise. The chaos and speed that they had witnessed from standing on the street couldn’t compare with what they were experiencing right now. Some of the horses and wagons were so close you could almost reach out and touch the riders and travellers.

Seamus steered his team of horses and weaved his taxi through the street with practised ease, even managing to turn a corner onto an adjacent road without causing hindrance to wagon, pedestrian or animal. Adam noticed his brother becoming increasing uncomfortable and moving around on the seat as he tried to remember different places of business along their route.

“Having trouble there?” he finally asked as he felt his brother’s larger frame move again.

“Dadburnit, Adam, I don’t mean no disrespect, but these things just ain’t wide enough for the both of us at the same time. Especially with someone as big as me,” he grouched, shifting backwards, not liking the cramped quarters.” Hoss felt like he was travelling from Virginia City by stagecoach all over again.

Adam felt the same way, but while they were reliant on Doyle for his local knowledge, they were going to have to adapt and make some compromises, “With any luck, we will reach our new destination and you can get out again and stretch your legs again.”

From his vantage point, Seamus was able to overhear the conversation between the two brothers, and noted the complaints about his taxi, “I am sorry about the narrow seating inside there Mr Cartwright,” he voiced, trying to take their mind off the lack of space.

“Plain old Hoss please for me, and this here is my brother, Adam. Mr Cartwright is how the manager at the bank addresses my Pa when he first walks in, not us.” He knew that the man was probably used to speaking formally to other passengers, but he was tired of that and wanted to be called by the simple name he was known by.

Seamus tipped the hat he was wearing with his free hand to show he understood, keeping the reins of the horse team firmly in the other.

“Did you happen to find your young friend yet?” Doyle asked, keeping the questions about the purpose of their visit to New Orleans. Back at the Railway Station, their father had been willing to pay a handsome sum of money for any small clues to their questions. He remembered that they had been looking for a young man wearing a green jacket.

“We haven’t received any further information than what you were able to provide this morning,” Adam replied. He was cautious in omitting any direct mention of Joe’s disappearance being a kidnapping. “The person we are looking for is our younger brother, Joe.”

“You think he is here in New Orleans?” Seamus asked, seeing a few lines of worry etched on Hoss’ face, but not saying anything out loud.

“When we were speaking to you this morning, you remembered that there were a few other people in company with Joe a few days ago, including a petite blond lady,” Adam explained. “The trail has since grown cold about his movements after the train station and we are anxious to find him.”

Doyle thought over the what he had recounted, “Like I said then, I don’t remember much, and I wasn’t taking much notice except for the fact that he was young. The green jacket stood out, but I didn’t get a good look at his face. There were definitely no names spoken out loud between any one of them. I am sorry that I didn’t know differently at the time, but I see so many people coming and going on a daily basis that finer details get a bit muddled at times.”

“No harm done,” Hoss voiced. “Our family is grateful for anything that might help us find Joe. After seeing the crowds in the city today, I can see how easy it would be to get folks mixed up.”

Adam wasn’t normally one to believe in things happening for a reason, but perhaps fate was taking a hand in their paths crossing again with the driver today. A chance encounter twice on the same day was more than a stretch, or believing that meeting again was merely coincidence. Maybe Hoss’ luck from the Irish people had rubbed off and was following them.

“We are coming into a completely different area out of the city centre now,” Doyle informed them, as the tall buildings gave way to different styles of housing. The streets were still wide, but the number of people riding horses decreased dramatically. There were open buck-board wagons carrying all kinds of goods rather than passengers. Children were playing simple games in small groups outside. The contrast was like night and day.

Adam started providing Seamus with a list, “My brother here would like you to find us lodgings that would be more suitable for visitors from out of town. Something a lot simpler than the St Charles building behind us, but offers hot water and good food and a nice place to sleep at a reasonable price. There will be two of us, my father whom you have already encountered, and enough space and extra room for Joe to join us afterwards.”

Doyle turned his head and grinned widely in Hoss’ direction, “I knew I was going to like you, Hoss! Mark my words, I promise that I know the perfect place,” he announced with excitement. The horses picked up on the change in his tone of voice, increasing their gait to match the spark of fresh exuberance.

“Do tell us about your choice,” Adam encouraged, pleased to see his brother relax a little due to the driver’s friendly nature.

“Ah, all in good time lads,” Doyle responded, clearly happy to keep an air of mystery about where he was intending to take them. “May not look much from the outside to most folk, but the place I have in mind is a hidden gem in this city.” The vague description only heightened the brother’s curiosity more about where they were headed.

Hoss brought up the other place they were keen to discover today. “Once we find that place, Seamus, a livery stable where we can rent some horses for our time here will be the next stop.”

“I can be helping you with that,” the driver answered, guessing that these men usually got themselves around by riding their own mounts. “There is a livery stable only a stones throw from place I am leading you. There you will find all the horses you be needing and the bits and bobs that comes with that.

Doyle wanted to hold onto their patronage for as long as he could. “Travelling like we are now may not be the fastest way and I can see by the expression on your face, Hoss, that you would prefer to be riding rather than being conveyed around by someone else such as myself. Heed my words now, that the streets in this part of the city are different because of the history that comes with them.”

“A right nice part of the city that we are coming into now, away from all those toffee nose folk. Visitors have come to know this area as the French District,” he elaborated. “But alas, that is where they fail to fully appreciate that the music, food and people here are unique and come from more than one place. Each with their own story to tell, and none of them the same. There is a mixture of faces, sights, smells and beliefs that you won’t see anywhere else, not even in San Francisco.

“Talking of them hiding something dark and sinister?” Adam commented casually, his tone clearly one of not believing any stories of ghosts or roaming spirits.

Seamus could hear that Adam wasn’t going to be influenced by folk-tales or legends, “You don’t have to believe in them for it to be true,” he warned. “There can be some bad elements around here at night is all I am saying. If you and your family were inclined to use me for the length of your stay, then it would take much less time to take you around and my own way of knowing how things work comes at no extra charge.”

‘Trying to get a little extra coinage for your trouble,’ Adam thought wryly to himself. They were turning the corner of an intersecting street, when he noted the sign Royale Road attached to the wrought iron fence as they passed by. “We would need to discuss your proposition with our father…….”

Any further discussion between him and Seamus was drowned out by Hoss’ sudden loud shout. He had been gazing across the opposite side of the street when he spotted a familiar figure, “Pull over, there he is now!” he declared with surprise. “Pa! Hey Pa!” he called out.

Guiding his team carefully off to the side of the road, Doyle used a command to slow down the horses down without needing to pull back on the leather straps too sharply. Adam placed a restraining hand on his brother’s upper arm, preventing Hoss from taking a nasty tumble in his haste out of the buggy. There was a genuine silent sigh of relief that his efforts had worked.

Ben had stopped walking abruptly at hearing a distinct voice and noting a buggy slowing down nearby. It was difficult to know who was more surprised to see each other, the two brothers or their father.

Rushing across the street, there had been a moment of worry as he saw Hoss stumble briefly. A broad smile appeared on his face at seeing his larger son standing safely next to horses. “What in the world are you two doing on this side of the city? I was starting to walk towards to the waterfront like we arranged, worried that I was going to be dreadfully late to meet up at the Captain’s Nest.”

“It’s sure good to see you too, Pa,” Hoss remarked truthfully, shaking his father’s hand. “Adam and I started looking for a place to stay like you told us, but it didn’t rightly turn out at all like we had hoped.”

“Trouble?” Ben surmised, looking up at the driver with a raised-eyebrow and waiting for a further explanation for the turn of events. This was the man they had come into contact with outside the railway station. He had given them answers that was sketchy at best, convinced that he had seen Joe a number of days ago. How had his two sons come to be riding in the company of this fellow to a completely different place?

Ben had left the Angerville building and only managed to walk a short distance past the bustling Exchange Market, intending to make a turn at the next corner. Another minute or two would have had them heading in opposite directions, hampering their intentions to rendezvous and decide on a search pattern to find Joe.

Adam answered, climbing out of the buggy, also greeting his father with a handshake. “Not trouble exactly, Pa. After separating this morning, we walked towards the centre of the city, and found ourselves standing outside the Saint Charles Hotel. There was definitely a large crowd of people going in and coming out.”

“The Saint Charles?,” Ben questioned, a place he had heard about through various sources over the years, but had never visited in person. In the back of his mind he remembered reading a newspaper article about there being a devastating fire. There had been mention of the building undergoing a large scale rebuild, with the interior to be refurbished in time for a grand re-opening.

“I didn’t think it was the place that you would like to stay in Pa, or Joe,” Hoss said, looking down at his feet, hoping his father wasn’t going to be too disappointed that he had chosen to stay some place else. “Adam went to ask if they had rooms available, but I guess I sort of got cold feet about staying there and how much it might cost. Ain’t a darn thing on the menu that short shanks would haven eaten anyhow iffn’ we could even read those foreign words.”

“Quite a luxurious place from what I have been lead to believe.” He would have trusted either son’s choice of accommodation, but to be honest he had not considered such a large and eloquent option for their needs. Whilst not out of character, Ben could see Hoss’ reluctance and avoidance to talk more on the subject, aware of his son’s aversion of people and places when he felt discontented.

Both Adam and Ben were astute enough to share a knowing look and understand there was a whole lot more to hear about the morning’s escapade that didn’t need to be brought up right now. They could speak more privately later between the two of them.

“Mr Doyle was letting off passengers outside of the hotel and I suspected he may be able to point us in the direction of a place to stay,” Adam explained. “We were on our way there now before Hoss spotted you walking.”

“A most fortunate thing too, Mr Cartwright, that I came along when I did,” Doyle exclaimed in self-praise. “Now you are all together again instead of getting lost. I be only too happy to convey you to a place that I was telling your boys about. The lady who owns the house will be most welcoming to any strangers so long as they mind her rules.”

“Can you take us there now please to make sure that she does have room enough for us to stay, Mr Doyle?” Ben questioned. “Once that has been taken care of, I would greatly appreciate you taking us back into the city to the police station. I know it means taking up more of your time, but I am willing to compensate you in return.”

“Those are most generous terms, Mr Cartwright, and I accept,” Seamus replied. “These are hard times for everybody and with five little mouths of my own at home to feed, I am sure you understand that a man has to do the best for one’s family.”

“Climb inside there with the both of you, plenty of room for two gents,” the driver instructed. “Hoss, you can take a seat beside me now. Usually frowned upon for a passenger to ride on-top, but this afternoon, we speak of it no more.”

Ben and Adam took up their seats inside the buggy, whilst Hoss clambered up beside the driver. He was definitely pleased to have more space to move about.

“Be careful there now, Hoss,” Doyle warned. Although there was more room, the bench seat was narrower and it wouldn’t take much for someone to lose their balance and topple off. “I would never forgive myself if one of my passengers took a nasty fall and was hurt.”

“Don’t worry about me none, Seamus, I have been driving all kinds of wagons around our ranch back home myself for quite a number of years,” Hoss commented. “Even rode as shotgun on a couple of stagecoaches from Reno and Carson City for the Sheriff. Pa and Adam have done the same. I even taught my younger brother, Joe, how to control a team of horses as he was learning.”

“The place I be taking you all to is only a couple of streets away,” Doyle called out as he snapped the reins and urged the horses forward. Adam and Ben were both pleased to be able to hear Hoss talking, signalling that he was in a more relaxed frame of mind. Inside the buggy, the topic of discussion was the need for all of them to have a decent meal.

“Do you really have five little tykes at home?” Hoss asked out of curiosity. “Must be tough raising them in such a big city.” It was no secret in the Cartwright family that Hoss adored children, often preferring to be in their company compared to some adults.

“Aye, Hoss, I do,” Doyle answered with a smile on his face. “Four little masters, two older boys in front and two younger ones at the back with one little shy lass in the middle.” For the duration of the journey, he told Hoss each of their names and their ages. The man may not be rich with material possessions and worked long hours away from them to earn money they needed; but the way he spoke of his wife and children were as if they were all the treasure in the world he would ever need.

_________________________________________________________________________________

Back at the paddle boat:

Seline entered the room where he has last seen Bonnie, but she was no longer there. Walking closer to the bed and gazing down at the occupant, the Cartwright boy was asleep. This was not the grand plan he had envisaged when he first took the young man away from his home and family. By now he had wanted to tame that youthful spirit and break the wilfulness he head inherited from his mother.

Thus far, his attempts at manipulation and forceful control had been mediocre and very unsatisfying. The head injuries had resulted in unforeseen delays of physical setbacks for his prisoner and a new, fast developing mistrust of certain uncooperative, loud-mouthed individuals from the medical profession. A few weeks ago, he was convinced that he had meticulously anticipated any problems before they arose. Patience was not his fortitude, but he had waited for exactly the right time to strike.

Any advantages he had gained by cunning and devious methods were quickly being eroded away, and time was becoming an enemy as it continued to slip through his fingers.

The final act of revenge against Ben Cartwright was still too far away, but there was no doubt that the boy’s family were trailing behind his tangent of ambiguous clues.

Striding out of the room with determination, he had decided that he was going to wrestle back some sense of control. Heading towards the kitchen which was the next most likely places for her to be if she was taking care of his prisoner as that wretched doctor had instructed.

Reaching the kitchen door, Bonnie had her back turned on Marchant as she kept her attention on a pan on the stove. Using the apron covering her skirt, she lifted the hot cooking skillet off the small stove, carrying over to a nearby table. She startled at the silent figure standing there, almost dropping the dish of scrambled eggs onto the floor.

“I am sorry, my dear,” Seline remarked, coming into the room. “I went to find you, but found young Joseph still asleep. Has he shown any improvement since the doctor’s departure?” The tone of his voice made her skin crawl with ingenuousness. The man wanted something from her but not coming out plainly and saying what.

“No sign of waking if that is what you mean, but his sleep was rather restless again an hour ago due to pain,” Bonnie answered truthfully. “I waited until he settled again before coming into here thinking that he may be hungry soon. I decided to make something simple, but a little more substantial this time than soup; scrambled egg. I have left the salt out until I see if his stomach is feeling nauseous and unsettled. Was there something else you wanted me to be doing?”

Seline’s grin widened at her direct question, but he saw this as the perfect opportunity to introduce a difficult answer. “Yes, there was something that I wanted to speak to you about,” he replied, using his index finger to to trace across the surface of the table.

“Put aside your concerns for Mr Cartwright’s dietary requirements for a moment whilst I explain,” he instructed. “What I have to tell you is most important, so I want you to listen to every word.”

Bonnie did as she was asked, setting the skillet back onto the stove, and covering the small amount of egg she had laid out on a plate. A few minutes were needed for it to cool before it could be eaten.

“Take a seat if you prefer,” her Boss suggested. This request only made her more nervous about what his demand was going to be. She didn’t think he would say it was important or seek her out if it was something trivial. Bonnie sat down cautiously, keeping her eyes on him at all times. Her hands were under the table where he could not immediately see them. She was wringing the edge of her apron tightly in both hands waiting for him to speak.

“This vessel is impressive is it not?” he asked, waving his hand about, gesturing towards the ceiling and everything within its walls. “A great deal of money has been spent on gaining her for my plan against Ben Cartwright, and there is still a lot more yet to spend in coming days. For the moment, there is only yourself, our prisoner, Mr Yeager and Mr Edwards, but that number will change dramatically as of tomorrow.”

“There will be a great many people here upon my orders undertaking tasks such as decorating the grand room to make it suitable as a gambling casino. There will be elaborate wooden tables and chairs brought in, luxurious fixtures and fittings, fabrics and curtains brought in. Some have come at a considerable cost after being sourced from various corners of the world,” Seline explained.

“Down in the engine room, there will be a number of people who have been employed to carry out menial tasks such as bringing stores aboard, stoking the boilers and making sure that everything is secured down below. Those people are coloured slaves whom will be in my employ for a short duration. They will not be allowed on the decks above the water line.”

“Some of them have been selected to be waiters and cooks for opening night, in which they will serve food and drink to our paying patrons, taking care of their every need,” Marchant continued. “Those that will be required to mingle with guests will be provided with appropriate clothing and uniforms. I want that night to be flawless, without anything out of place.”

“There is a large guest room on the other side of the boat, similar to the one that is assigned to Mr Cartwright. From tomorrow, that room will be out of bounds for everybody, including yourself and anybody else. From floor to ceiling, that room will be filled with furniture, rich furshings, bedding and other paraphernalia that one would associate with staying in a large expensive hotel. Only in this case, they will be staying here. Nobody is allowed to enter that room without my express permission, not even you.”

“That brings me to my important task for you,” Seline asserted. “Whilst I have spent a large amount of my own capital for this venture, I did need to ask for investment and financial backing from another source. This man is used to the finest of everything, and that is exactly what he will be getting here when he arrives. The very best of service.”

“Who is this person?” Bonnie interrupted, not sure how she felt about the mention of a silent party being involved this late.

Seline was about to deliver a sharp rebuke, but instead decided to ignore the disapproval he could hear with her question. Her place was not to argue his choices, but to listen and obey when he commanded it.

“I have gained the best quality ingredients, wines, whiskey, cigars and anything else he is used to experiencing in life. But what I want to make even more sure of, is the quality of the female company he will keep on that opening night.”

Bonnie suddenly understood the not-so-subtly of the message in his wording, jumping up off her chair in challenge, “You don’t mean for me to……..?” but any further refusal from her tongue was curtailed as he took a strong grip around her forearm.

“I do mean exactly that, and I expect you will do what you are told without raising your voice to me,” he pressed harshly, squeezing her soft skin until she elicited a cry of pain. She had no choice but to nod her head at his warning. “Do I make myself, perfectly clear?” he hissed.

“Yes,” she whispered, staring back at him and noting his menacing and unapologetic attitude. She felt the his hand around her arm loosen, but he was expecting her to pay close attention to what else he had to say.

“The man’s name, Bartholonew Herbert Henry Adams, I am sure you will not know, and he will not be inclined to know the likes of you. He is used to dealing with business people, and sophisticated people who have been successful in life. Not those who find themselves as no more than a scullery maid or tramp off the streets of San Francisco.”

‘What is he doing loaning money to someone like you then?’ Bonnie wanted to throw back in his face. Whilst she had not encountered him in person, she did know a little of his background. The newspapers regularly wrote articles on his family’s financial ventures.

The words hit too close to home, but she refrained from objecting to his description of her life, instead make a surprising comment of her own. “I have heard of his name before,” she said. “Being from San Francisco as you pointed out, most people from that city know who he is. He started his family fortune by working his way up in the world, not stepping on those beneath him.”

“Well, I certainly would have suspected you had known of him,” Seline responded with a good helping of condescension. “You are correct that he did work his way into money, but together his family manage a vast shipping and transport empire. He owns a significant interest in a number of companies shipping of goods and passengers from San Francisco through to New Orleans. There are in fact two other brothers who also control a large proportion of the delivery service from East to West. His eldest brother Miles Adams has heavy stakes in horses and the stagecoach lines. The younger brother Ethan Adams has a majority interest in the railway network, including its rapid expansion.

“All of them have been in business for more than twenty five years. I am unaware of his complete travel itinerary, but he sent a telegram advising of his acceptance of my invitation. He was due to travel by clipper ship for a number of days, followed by train for some of the journey and the remainder by stagecoach. He is a careful man who likes to check up on his investments and employees, often travelling long distances to test out routes and make changes where necessary.”

“You may consider someone such as myself to be gutter trash, but I am not one of those ladies of the night who would sell her body or soul for money,” Bonnie ground out with contempt. She had been expecting to receive a slap to her face from his hand, and wanted to recoil away in revulsion when Seline’s finger ran gently down the side of her pale face. He gently tucked a blond curl behind her ear, making his own insatiable and lascivious intentions for her clear.

“That probably won’t be necessary. All I need you to do that night is to wear your finest dress and be sweet company for him as I show him around and introduce him to the other invited guests. If he wishes to indulge any other pleasures before, during or afterwards, well then, I will let you discuss that with him.

Bonnie felt his gaze upon her, and although his tone if voice had changed, there was still an open threat of what could happen to her if she didn’t reply to his requests, or denied those of Mr Adams once he arrived.

“I will leave you now and allow you to tend to young Mr Cartwright before his food gets any colder,” Seline said with finality, releasing her arm and walking to the door. “Oh, on that opening night, Mr Edwards and Mr Yeager will take over personal security and supervision of Joseph. They will watch his every move, as I have some special plans in store on that particular night.”

Bonnie found herself sitting down in the chair as she tried to take in what she had been told. Seline had already killed someone in cold blood when they had challenged him. She didn’t want to become another nameless murder victim, but for herself there was the risk of suffering an even worse fate than death. The next few days would see her removed from taking care of Joe Cartwright, putting both of them put in more danger. She felt a cold chill run down the length of her spine at the thought of her future in the grubby and groping hands of Marchant Seline.

_________________________________________________________________________________________

Ben Cartwright and his two sons were now headed away from their new lodgings, back towards the city. They had arrived outside a cottage that was quite deceiving about the amount of space it had to offer. A low set building with larger two storey properties towering over it on either side. The roof-line of that particular house slanted to the front and the back creating a distinct triangular shape to the side gables.

Seamus Doyle had taken them to a bordering house belonging to Mrs Rosella Fleur, or ‘Rose’ they were encouraged to call her. The cottage had two entrances and two windows on the front facing exterior. Inside there were five separate bedrooms as well as two living areas, and a number of smaller rooms not including the kitchen. The woman had a kind smile, her long skirts of a dark blue fabric, her silvering blond hair pinned up at the back, curling and poking out at the front of the wool woven bonnet framing her face. Her warm brown eyes spoke of hardships endured that were never spoken of and held a gaze of wisdom that only came from experience.

The men explained to the woman that they needed accommodation for themselves and one other family member who would joining them later. They were unable to tell her how many nights they would be staying, but Rose assured them that there would be plenty of room for them as long as they needed. These last few months had seen less guests staying and she welcomed the money offered for at least a week in addition to food with a quiet thanks. The price seemed a little low despite being well maintained and presented single storey house, but Ben made a promise to ensure that their host would be adequately compensated. He made a note to discuss the matter with her at a later time.

Being the one nominated to go inside and assess if this place would be suitable, Hoss came out wearing a huge grin of approval. “Ma’am, the supper you are cooking in there is making me hungrier than a bear after the snow has melted in the winter time.

“I will make sure that there is some extra warm crusty bread set aside just for you, ” she assured Hoss, pleased to hear his praise about the delicious smells wafting from her well worn kitchen. “I will make sure that there is plenty to eat for everybody when Seamus has returned you back safely from your business in the city. I will make sure that there is a room made up for each of you with plenty of warm blankets so that you sleep well tonight.”

Thankfully, Rose had not asked too many questions about the nature of their business or why they were going in the city. She was ready to hear their stories when they were ready to share them. She had been curious about why they had arrived to stay without any clothes or belongings.

When they left Virginia City on the stagecoach, each of the them had been carrying a small carpet bag each. Adam explained that when they left the railway station this morning, they were intending to traverse the streets on foot until they at least found a livery stable. They had arranged with the porter to keep their bags secure, expecting to be riding back on horses to collect them.

With their circumstances changing after the Saint Charles hotel, Doyle told the men that he would make time to take them back to pick up their bags after attending the police station. Back in San Francisco, Hoskins had shown them the condition of the clothes Joe had with him in the saddle bags left inside his suite. Once he had been found and was safely back with the family, they may need to visit some clothing stores to replenish anything he needed before they left for home. Any additional clothing required for themselves could be purchased at the same time.

“I will be seeing you soon, Miss Rose,” Seamus uttered with a smile as he climbed up onto his buggy, tipping his hat in farewell, gesturing for his passengers to climb aboard. “You won’t find a nicer lady in this city, Hoss. Would help out any lost soul with a spare bed and something to eat when they are down on their luck. Even for a poor Irish fool such as myself when I first came here. One can only savour how good her cooking really is by tasting it for themselves. Ladies come to her wanting to discover new and favourite recipes to pass along to their own families.”

“Take heed of what I tell you now,” Seamus cautioned, waiting until Hoss turned and faced him before delivering his a stern warning. “Mark my words, if you rile her or do wrong to someone she comes to care about; the wrath she unleashes will be swift and unforgettable. The very devil himself will seem like a better choice of friend.”

______________________________________________________________________________

New Orleans Central Police District:

The two storey building from the outside appeared drab and washed out as the three members of the Cartwright family alighted from the taxi on the opposite corner.

There was nowhere for buggy’s to stop directly out the front, so they were forced to make their across the bustling street. The time was now just past one in the afternoon, allowing plenty of time to state their case for assistance.

Seamus intended to wait with his horses for them to finish their business before returning them to Rose’s boarding house. The inside of the police headquarters of the city was not a place wished to spend any mount of time. “I will be stayin’ right here with Buster and Finnegan, Mr Cartwright,” he stipulated to Ben, affectionately rubbing the noses of his horses.

“Thank you, that would be mighty helpful,” Ben answered, but his gaze was already drawn towards the entrance. “Come on, boys, Joe will be counting on us,” he urged, straightening his hat with purpose in mind.

The differences between this police headquarters and the one he had first entered in San Francisco were quite noticeable. A number of tall, police constables dressed in smart blue uniforms, accented with pewter buttons, could be seen in pairs or small groups, going studiously about their work. Adam and Hoss remained quiet, but alert, wanting to portray a unified front in finding their missing brother. Following their father through two large doors to the ground floor, they were ready to join any organised search team.

Behind that set of double doors there was a long wooden counter, possibly leading to other offices or even holding cells. To the right, set against the wall was an internal staircase where a number of police officers were walking up to, or returning from the floor above their heads. The place wasn’t overly crowded at this time of the afternoon, but there was enough continual movement of people to signify that they were providing an invaluable service within the city.

Ben found himself craving the small amount of space and single desk that local Sheriff Coffee occupied inside the Virginia City jail-house. Compared to this building, the resources Roy was afforded appeared quite rudimentary and simplistic, but at least he was much more approachable. At least there Ben could be assured of having one person’s undivided attention when there was a problem to discuss.

Upon approaching the Officer on Duty, there was a printed sign affixed that read ‘All Enquiries’ and below it, translated into French, ‘Toutes les Demandes’. A small reminder that there were two languages spoken by different sections of the population. A portion of the inhabitants were able to read, write and converse in French and English.

In San Francisco, Constable William Turner had greeted Ben when he first reported Joe missing, but the police officer that he approached now, was not wearing any kind of identifying name badge. Everything about the man’s posture and attitude displayed boredom and disinterest.

“Good afternoon, my name is Ben Cartwright and these are my two eldest sons, Adam and Hoss. We are seeking your urgent assistance in helping find my youngest son, Joseph Cartwright,” the patriarch gave in introduction.

“My name is Sergeant Felix Guillaume,” the officer declared with a deep, heavy French accent, nodding his head in acknowledgement at those standing in front of him. The officer’s bushy eyebrows arched in silent confusion at the very different attire the three men were wearing, including the older silver-haired man speaking directly to him.

Ben could sense the man’s unspoken question, advising him of where they had come from, “We have travelled a very long way for the best part of two weeks, over various routes from our ranch The Ponderosa from Nevada.” After hearing his own words of admission out loud, he could scarcely believe the time frame. Had Joe been missing for all that time?

“Gone and gotten himself lost has he?” the Officer remarked, pulling out a large book and small bottle of ink, preparing to write down any pertinent details. “I will need to know a little more about him than just a name, please.”

“Joseph Cartwright, nineteen years of age, slim build, a fair complexion with brown hair and could have been carrying or wearing a green jacket,” Ben quoted.

Dix-neuf ans?” the Officer scoffed. A word or two in French were creeping into his comments before he continued in English. “Probably got himself lost in a cheap bottle of liquor and is currently sleeping off the contents in one of the taverns along the coast, Monsieur Cartwright,” he gave as an alternative scenario, concluding with an insincere chuckle. The smirk quickly died on his lips as he looked into the man’s tired face, noting his disapproval at the assessment of his son’s possible movements and current location.

“Young men come to this city with plenty of wild ideas, money in their pocket, only to get themselves into all kinds of nuisance trouble,” the Officer explained for his rudeness and insensitivity. “There may be a number perfectly normal, and innocent reasons for you not to be able to locate your son. Most of their actions are quite harmless, but they fail to think ahead about the consequences.”

“For your information, Sir,” Ben replied in his son’s defence, “We strongly believe he may have been taken from San Francisco by force and smuggled into this city. His whereabouts are unknown of course, that is why we are coming to you here today. We fear that Joe may have been hurt, and is most certainly being held against his will and

kept as a prisoner.”

“We suspect deliberate steps have been taken by those responsible to thwart any efforts to find him or for my son to meet with other parties in San Francisco as arranged prior to leaving home. We have seen for ourselves that his horse is still being cared for at the livery stable of the hotel. One of those appointments was with a Major Kenneth Branson where a large sum of money was expected to be exchanged and deposited in a bank. The concierge stated that he saw my son leave the hotel that morning on foot, but Major advised us that Joseph never arrived at the bank, which is most out of character.”

The Police Officer realised that had done the young man’s family a dis-service by making unsubstantiated judgements about his character, and he could see that they were not about to accept that point of view about their missing family member.

“I apologize for my lack of understanding about your situation, Mr Cartwright,” Officer Guillaume said, standing up to his full height, preparing to listen more intently to their plight. “Please forgive me, all that information you gave a minute ago is too much at once. I prefer if you could start back at the beginning.”

The man’s heavy accent made it much more difficult to pick up everything he was saying in the conversation.

Ben gave a tired, frustrated sigh, annoyed at the man’s insistence of repeating himself thus far and wasting precious time. Removing his hat, he made sure that the officer was paying full attention as he began his story again for a second time. He hadn’t gotten too far though before the officer was interrupting again with fresh questions of his own.

“Do you have proof that your son taken by somebody, Mr Cartwright?”

“None of us were in the same city from where he was kidnapped,” Ben answered. “We did receive some very helpful clues from the police in San Francisco. There was also a note at the shipping yard, bearing my name,” he added, pulling out the small piece of paper from his shirt pocket and handing it over to be examined.

Officer Guillaume accepted the hand-written note, reading the message several times before pointing out one vital piece of information, “This does not show anywhere, the identity of the person who is telling you of his fate. Do you have their name?”

“No, but we believe it was possibly left behind by a young woman who was travelling with my son,” Ben remarked. He hoped that the man didn’t intend to use the word ‘fate’ too often around Joe’s name.

“Do you have her name?”

Ben turned back towards his son’s for clarification.

“Hoskins is the name of the man behind the reception desk of the Plaza Hotel, and he informed us that her name was, Bonnie,” Adam replied, stepping forward to continue. “The woman worked at the hotel for an indistinguishable amount of time, but couldn’t be located, and her absence coincided a little too conveniently with my brother’s disappearance. Constable Turner in San Francisco was able to give a first-hand witness account and description that matched a young woman accompanying Joe out of the city. She is reported to be the last person to have spoken to him on the night he checked into the hotel and before he left for the bank to meet with Major Branson.”

“We believe that a man by the name of Marchant Seline may be responsible for my son’s captivity, or at least arranged for it to happen. That person has held a grudge against myself and my late wife, Marie, before Joseph was even born. Only now has he decided to strike by carrying out such a vile act of betrayal, for whatever reason. You can confirm anything that we have told you with the San Francisco police. We know the services of a doctor were employed before they left the city. The body of a physician was found murdered.”

The officer appeared suitably surprised and alarmed at the news of a doctor being murdered.

Ben pleaded for him to understand how worried they were for Joe. “Officer, I am a wealthy man in money, land and livestock, but I fear that this man has much more than the financial gain my of material assets in mind for my son. Seline wants revenge on me, and he is using Joseph as a bargaining chip to achieve that satisfaction. We need to do everything we can to find him now!”

Clearing his throat to hide how much of an impact this young man’s disappearance was having on him, the officer continued his line of questioning. “Monsieur Cartwright, have you received a ransom note from this person, threatening harm to your son?”

The officer could see that Ben was about to give a negative response, but spoke his reasoning first, “You state to me that you are a man of substantial means and assets. If taking your son was his purpose, should you not have received such a demand by now?”

“No such note has been received, but Seline is playing a dangerous game of cat and mouse, leaving a few useless crumbs behind, knowing that we will follow his twisting trail that lead to nothing but dead ends,” Ben replied, his voice becoming a little harder towards the end. “I am not about to stand by idly and wait for false hope.”

Hoss watched the police officer stop writing, hoping that he was about to make some definitive solutions about organising a search party after hearing his father’s impassioned words. Unfortunately his next sentence put a whole dampener on much being done to find Joe at all. The larger Cartwright was getting equally frustrated by the lack of action happening.

Adam’s face disguised his emotions well behind a calm exterior, with his arms folded across his chest masking a distinct level of irritation. Knowing he had to prevent himself from making a rash statement and risk jeopardising police involvement. He had spent some time enforcing the law in smaller towns as a deputy sheriff, rounding up a posse of men to chase down known outlaws.

All four Cartwright’s, including Joe, had been involved in searches on horseback and foot. Often these were children who had wandered away and had become lost accidentally and lacked a sense of direction. There were also victims of robbery or criminal activity who were left by thieves or bandits to fend for themselves in unforgiving or dense terrain, during all types of weather.

After being within these walls during the last hour this afternoon, and having watched the officer’s gestures and general mannerisms, he could only draw the conclusion of having seen more organisational skills in Hop Sing’s chicken coop.

“I will make the necessary enquiries with our brother officers in San Francisco, but expect any answers to take more than a few days…..,” the officer began to say.

“More than a few days?” Hoss exclaimed, not allowing him to finish the sentence and unable to hold back his criticism. “The varmint that has my brother could be long gone by then!”

Ben put a hand on his son’s beefy shoulder to curb his outburst, knowing that he was only voicing how they were all feeling.

“Please understand me gentlemen, you are missing this Joseph quite badly, I know this,” Guillaume remarked, “My hands remain, how you say, tied. You are requesting that I do something with very little evidence of a crime being committed. Your proof is this torn scrap of paper left by nobody, hearsay from strangers and suspicions based on past personal grievances against you, not your son.”

“Our police force does not have the man power to traipse off each time a report reaches us of someone missing. It cannot work this way like you ask. Perhaps if you had come to me today with something more tangible, or a witness who could make a statement, or that ransom demand. I will do the best I can with what you have told me so far, but right now for you, the wheel turns a little slower I think, yes?”

“You have our assurance that we will endeavour to do what we can, but I need for you to be patient and wait to be contacted further. A search can only be conducted once a narrower area of the city can be determined,” the officer informed the family. “Do you have somewhere to stay in the city where you may be reached with news?”

“That is all you are proposing to do, after everything you have heard?” Ben petitioned with hands on his hips and a hard-line expression on his face. The patriarch was beyond incensed at the man’s justification of passivity with shallow promises. “After listening to us explain that something is dreadfully wrong, and plead how urgent this matter is. For you then to insist that we wait until you are satisfied that our claim has merit and we are telling you the truth?”

Ben was about to request to speak to a superior officer, not accepting of the officer’s opinion on how understaffed their police force was or care about the lack of evidence that had been presented. Joe was laying hurt somewhere and being denied his freedom, whilst he was forced to stand in front of this counter and argue with the police.

‘Wasn’t a man’s solemn word good enough any more?’

“Mr Cartwright, the sheer number of people, including children who are reported missing in this city on a daily basis would no doubt shock your family,” Officer Guillaume remarked. “Today, I have a three year old female child missing and an eighty-nine year old man, who suffers from senility. Which of these two urgent cases do you suggest I spend less time and resources on finding before nightfall?”

“This police station houses more than two hundred and fifty officers, all of whom speak both French and English to carry out their duties. During their shift hours, they are required to cover an area of this city that could use double that number and still not have time to complete every investigation thoroughly enough.”

Politeness and courtesy were quickly being eroded away by the officer due to his impersonal attitude. He had been beginning to show some genuine signs of empathy a few minutes ago when he asked Ben to repeat his story and be eager to help. Unfortunately that point of view changed all too suddenly.

Hoss and Adam exchanged a knowing look with each other as their father gripped the brim of his hat a lot tighter, changing his expression again to one they were quite familiar with. Their father wasn’t about to allow himself to be treated like the backwoods cow-poke that this police officer had probably sized Ben Cartwright to be. The two brothers had seen this stance a few times in their lives, tugging the front of their hats down to hide unsympathetic grins at what was about to befall Officer Guillaume.

This stature of Ben normally caused cow-hands to stop any work they were doing in the barn or around the yard, gather together and take an interest in what the boss of the Ponderosa wanted to say. The same method was employed as a businessman when delivering an ultimatum to sloppy suppliers when they had failed to fulfil their obligations of a contract. An unwavering gaze he directed at a Governor or local town mayor when he challenged them over trying to using the Ponderosa’s reputation and brand. He wasn’t about to allow their good name to be used to gain power by political influence or interference for their own profit.

A much younger Joe Cartwright had encountered the same stern presence and had been stopped in his tracks more than once or twice. Usually when being caught running through the house or having his boots on the furniture and skedaddling out the front door to start his chores on time. The boys had learnt to read Ben’s body language before they heard him speak.

Hoss and Adam both remembered being on the receiving end of that steadfast scrutiny from those brown eyes, followed by hearing that powerful voice giving them a steely lecture they wouldn’t soon forget. They had witnessed it again recently when their father had discovered Seline’s name signed in the hotel register in Virginia City. Their father had relied on that raw determination as he strode out, intending to fetch back Little Joe.

Standing before Officer Guillaume, Ben chose not to raise his voice, but ensured that he held the man’s undivided attention with his next proclamation.

Ben poured a mixture of disappointment and slow simmering anger into his short, meaningful testimony of words. “Today, we have come to you after travelling for almost two weeks, pleading for assistance on behalf of someone whom we care for greatly. At the very least, you could have offered some basic human decency and kindness. Instead, I find myself standing here, talking in riddles and arguing legalities, allowing more time to bleed away and our anxiety and concern for his well-being to grow.”

“That lost little girl and elderly gentlemen certainly have every right to all the help and resources that you and your police division are able to offer at this time, on that we can most definitely agree. I pray for the them to be found quickly and be returned safely to their families. As the father of someone who will most likely remain missing by nightfall, I throw back to you that the circumstances surrounding my son’s mysterious disappearance deserves no less consideration or effort of investigation. Our need to find Joseph comes with every ounce of fortitude that we can muster, and a very real fear for the danger he could be facing.”

The police officer opened his mouth and was about to say something in his own defence, but closed it again in silence, his face reddening with shame as he continued to receive the sharp rebuke.

Ben provided the address of the Rose’s boarding house as requested where they could be contacted, but made a final statement of warning as the three of them prepared to leave and return to the taxi and Seamus waiting outside.

“I reiterate my plea for any assistance, the officers and yourself from this station are willing to give in relation to this matter. Make no mistake that my sons and I will not sit upon our hands and do nothing, with or without the police. I intend to turn over every rock, brick and nailed wooden plank in this city until Joseph has been found and rescued, before it is too late.”

_______________________________________________________________________________

Back at the paddle boat:

Carrying a tray containing the warm plate of food, a glass of water and a hot cup of coffe, Bonnie made her way back to the room where she had left Joe Cartwright sleeping. A myriad of negative thoughts on her mind and emotions she could barely control. Seline’s task coinciding with the arrival of this new guest, Bartholomew Herbert Henry Adams were unsavoury and unwelcome.

Upon opening the door and entering the room, she was mildly surprised to see Joe Cartwright sitting on the edge of the bed, his shirtless back facing her. He was holding his head in his hands, massaging his temples. The headache he had when the doctor was present, still causing obvious discomfort.

Joe slowly turned his upper body and head at hearing her soft footsteps, squeezing his eyes tightly for a brief moment as movement caused his pain to spike, “I must have fallen asleep before you left.” He gave the young woman a deprecating half smile.

“The doctor told you that sleep is the best medicine for you right now,” Bonnie admonished. “I brought you some food, thinking you would be hungry by now, and hoping that having something in your stomach would help. Something a little more filling than soup today.”

She could see the words of refusal forming on his lips, “You need to eat,” she urged, with a touch of pleading in her voice. Was it so hard for him to believe that she wanted to see him well again?

Joe conceded, tired and growing irritable, not wanting to argue with her. He was telling himself he should be grateful that she had been taking care of him. A small voice in the back of his mind wanted to dispute that premise in tandem with his headache.

Bonnie arranged the pillows at the head of the bed, “Here, sit back against these, and I will hand what I have made to you. The food is still warm, but not enough to make the plate beneath it too hot to handle.”

Joe did as he was told, but couldn’t mask his discontentment as a chair was placed beside the bed. Following her continual movement about the room wasn’t helping his headache. He was feeling uncomfortable that she intended to stay in the room, annoyance creeping into his voice, “You don’t need to stay and watch me eat!”

“Nevertheless, I will be staying here until you do finish,” she challenged, holding out a fork by the handle. “The objection you are firing at me from those lovely green eyes won’t sway me, Joseph Dubois.”

Joe snatched up the fork with a scowl, displeased that the woman wasn’t about to give him the space that he craved and be allowed to consume his meal in peace.

“I brought a container of salt if you wish,” Bonnie offered, smiling briefly to herself at his tantrum. It disappeared quickly as realism began to set in. He may need every ounce of that stubbornness to overcome his captivity and stay alive.

Joe turned his attention to the food, scrutinising what was on the plate as he listened to the simple list of ingredients. The aroma was certainly enticing enough to make him want to taste.

“Soft scrambled eggs with small pieces of diced bacon,” she recited. “Should be easy on your stomach.”

“There is nothing wrong with my stomach,” Joe declared, plunging the metal tines into the soft yellow mound and extracting a mouthful.

Before he could demonstrate that to her, Joe inhaled sharply as images and a voice assailed his senses at the same time. The muscles of his jerking involuntarily and losing strength, causing the fork being held near his mouth to fall. It felt as though every breath in his lungs was being stolen.

You had better hurry up and take your share of those eggs, Short Shanks, if you plan on having any breakfast this morning.’

Bonnie immediately stood up in alarm, reaching over and grabbing onto his hand, calling out his name, knowing that something was wrong. Surely he couldn’t be choking on the food? The fork had hit the edge of the plate and bounced off, leaving a trail of yellow staining the bedclothes.

“What happened? Are you alright?”

She was about to race out of the room and find one of the men, but stopped when he tried to speak. Upon hearing the coarse, gasping noises escaping his throat, Bonnie handed him the glass of water, pleased to see him sipping on it rather than gulping the contents. She picked up the plate from his lap and the fork, setting them aside, as he moved to the edge of the bed, trying to regain his composure.

“I don’t know what happened,” he answered honestly, his voice sounding weak and strained.

Bonnie was about to say she didn’t believe him, but saw that he was trying hard to concentrate. She went to take a hold of his arm in case he faltered, but he backed away from her and the bed, feeling off-balance and dizzy. Possibly from standing up too quickly and his headache, but clearly rattled.

“For a few seconds……… it was like I was inside a dream,” he hissed, pausing half way and shaking his head trying to clear the fog. “I was holding onto a plate, this hand was reaching out, trying to take it away from me, and a voice with no face started talking to me.” He repeated the words as best he could recall them, before asking her a question.

“I hear this voice in my head, and I should know who it belongs to, but I don’t?” he beseeched, becoming slightly more panicked and agitated that his memory was coming up blank again. He was continually second guessing every single word he heard spoken or that left his own mouth.

Any rational person should be able to remember his own name without being prompted. The people around him, claiming to know everything about him, he should be able to recognize who they were without any difficulty. Joe could no longer distinguish what day the week it was. Each time he had awoken with his head pounding, there was no way of tell if minutes or hours had passed by.

An indescribable sense of frustration was building up inside at having to justify his insecurities. “Why does everything feel out of place and disjointed? Joe took another step backwards away from her. Dozens of puzzle pieces that couldn’t be put together to resemble any kind of normality.

Joe raise his hands, burying his fingertips into his hair, pulling and tugging, “You don’t know what it is has been like,” he shouted. “Looking into the mirror and not knowing the face that stares back in mockery. The only thing that blocks it out is the pain from these awful headaches, gnawing away at me night and day.”

“Nobody round here seems to want to give me a straight answer……….including you,” he accused the woman. “You are hiding more than you are telling me. What I don’t understand yet, is why you won’t speak the truth.”

“I am paid to be here by your father, to see that you are fed, provided with fresh clothes and tend to you as the doctor instructed, that is all you ever need to know,” Bonnie remarked, unsure if he was even listening. Forced to swallow her deceit, scarcely able to withstand the allegation of how much she knew about him.

The headache plaguing him spiked yet again, causing him to take an unsteady step over to the bed, holding his head in his hands as he collapsed unceremoniously onto his side. Squeezing his eyes shut, he gently massaged his temples, whimpering as the pain multiplied exponentially.

“Let me help you,” Bonnie soothed, encouraging him to rest, adjusting the pillows beneath his head. Any fight he had managed to scrape together was now gone, exacerbating his misery. Taking pity on him and seeing that he had lost any interest in food, she helped alter his position, hoping he would find some temporary respite.

After twenty minutes, she was relieved to see the handsome young man drift into a restless doze, his questions remaining unanswered. When he woke again, she may have to mix-up one of the pain powders that the doctor had prescribed, if his pain had not abated.

With the room now quiet, sitting here watching over him as he slept, Bonnie evaluated her whole position, trying to salvage any kind of future. How had she became embroiled in such an elaborate hoax? In the beginning it had been about money, and that is what she had told Edwards when he questioned her motivation. What were her choices now if wanted to change her mind and back out of this downright loathsome farce?

Was she really willing to tell Joe the full truth and be honest about her involvement in Seline’s wicked scheme? Having spent time caring for him, she didn’t want to see him hurt more or used as a pawn against his real father. And she definitely didn’t want to see him killed because of one man’s twisted vengeance.

When Joe awoke, maybe she could persuade him to escape with her, but that idea lost merit and wasn’t a very viable alternative way out when she considered that he was suffering from headaches and huge lapses in his memory. In San Francisco, she knew of a few back streets and alleys, and people who would be willing to harbour them. As strangers in this city, New Orleans offered no safe haven for either of them to find sanctuary.

Going to the police wasn’t a very good idea when she would be blamed for being actively involved in Joe’s kidnapping in the first place. Marchant would blame his captivity and any injuries he inflicted on her. The man would have the financial means and connections to get away from the law without consequence. She wasn’t fortunate enough to own firearm or sharp blade to defend themselves should Seline send out Edwards and Yeager in pursuit to bring them back.

Thinking hard about her own fate, if she was selfish enough to chance running away from Seline’s insidious trickery, what would happen to Joe? There wasn’t much time to devise a solution and she would have to be extremely careful. Any decision she made would affect more than her own life. Bonnie was headed for a trap and once caught in it, the cage door would be slammed shut. Neither of them would be able to break free or make it out alive.

__________________________________________________________________________________________

Down on the docks of the waterfront:

A dark, dingy establishment with floors stained from decades of spilt cheap whiskey and reeking of stale cigar smoke. The tattered and stained curtains covering the windows were paper thin with age.

Mark Douglas stood at the bar, eyeing the shot of whiskey that the weather-beaten barkeep put in front of him. A coin was placed in payment and quickly snatched away.

Arriving in this city a few hours ago, losing track of how long it had taken to traverse the enormous distances, he was seeking a drink and then a hot meal. The clothes he currently wore didn’t quite fit properly, with the waist of the long travel coat at the wrong height to suit his shorter frame than the previous owner.

Finding himself stranded at Peak’s Crossing without a horse seemed like a lifetime ago. Without having a particular destination in mind, he knew there wouldn’t be a job to go back to at the Ponderosa for him or Nichols. His luck had changed when he had borrowed a horse from an unsuspecting stranger and rode into San Francisco. Standing outside the city bank, he had been pondering what his next move might be when an opportunity presented itself.

A well dressed gentleman, carrying a medium sized travel bag, had exited the building but was distracted when he paused to talk with two other business men. The bag had been placed on the ground beside him, but Douglas had no trouble using the growing cluster of people walking past to mask his thievery. For someone who had spent most of his life counting four legs and a tail for the meagre wages of a cow-hand, his adeptness came naturally.

Education was not his forte, and he was no scholar when it came to book learning. He was limited to being able to read some and to make his mark when required. Ben had been mildly surprised and willingly hired him over other workers. Those basic smarts had gained him an additional measure of respect from Adam Cartwright. That courtesy would have turned to dust by now though, after being fired.

The distance before them and a lack of experienced riders to handle the temperamental animals, Douglas could assume that the drive would have come to an abrupt and unsatisfying end for the Ponderosa. Notwithstanding that pleasing outcome, he still owed that spoilt rich-kid, loud-mouthed Joe, a good hard punch in the nose.

Upon examining the contents, he had found a treasure trove of personal possessions, embossed envelopes, fancy letters and important business papers. His eyes had greedily settled on a leather bill-fold; with a large amount of real cash money tucked neatly inside. Everything he needed to take on a new name and make a new life for himself. The handkerchief in the pocket of his coat was embroidered with silver lettering and the initials, B.H.H.A.

There had been travel tickets inside for a ship departing San Francisco, a stage coach and a train, which he took full advantage of using to leave the city in haste. He had never been on a real train before and had relished the exciting new experience. The stagecoach had proven to be dusty and slow, and he had not enjoyed the other passengers he had encountered. The inside of the coach had been too cramped and he was forced to listen to the endless chatter about their dull lives.

For most of the journey, he found himself seated next to a larger lady who had drowned her clothes in an sickening, overly sweet perfume. The stench would linger for days on everything he carried. Next time he would ride and choose his own road.

There had been several telegrams inside addressed to the previous owner, talking about being invited to a big celebration in New Orleans. A name in fancy writing, matching the initials, Bartholomew Herbert Henry Adams was recorded on at least one page of those documents. There was an engraved silver pocket watch hanging on chain, with the engraved inscription, ‘Love from your darling, Isabella’. He had no idea who the woman was and what she meant to the man, but cared even less and only seized upon it for the potential monetary value.

Maybe he wouldn’t be able to pull off pretending to be this Adams person for very long, and he might run foul of the law, but for so far, no questions had been asked.

He was confident that nobody in this city knew his true identity. With fancy clothes, money and other expensive belongings, he could afford to climb up the ladder of society and experience what it must be like to live well. He could keep the cash, use the tickets to travel to new places and eventually trade anything left of value for things he could use, including a good horse.

Swallowing the last of the whiskey and intending to find a room to rent the night, wanting to make sure the alcohol erased the name Cartwright from his memory.

To be continued ……….

Author Notes – After seeing the episode The Stranger I realise that the similarities with my Marchant Seline are in name only. The personality and mannerisms that I have adapted for him throughout this story are quite different to what is on the episode.

There is the mention of slaves being used in this work and people of colour. Please know that it is not done with any offence intended to any individuals or a specific race of people, but a desire to recreate what have happened in New Orleans during the 1860’s. Any derogatory or insulting terms used are meant to portray those times when not everybody was considered equal. This chapter only contains a word or two, but following chapters will contain quite a few more references and situations.

Don’t worry, Ben will get to find out about Rawlings knowing who Joe was before they met and not telling him. You haven’t seen the last of that doctor yet. There is a whole lot more action to come, even though some have been waiting for Joe to be rescued. The ending that I wanted all those years ago I started this story didn’t happen at the end of this chapter unfortunately. It was getting too long again.

There are a few new characters that I have introduced, and some of them have a particular speech pattern. Their words may be shortened, pronounced incorrectly or spoken with different enunciation to highlight ethnicity and language differences. I use a similar system for Hoss and Hop Sing in my writing. Officer Guillaume turned out quite different in personality to what I had originally planned.

And just who are Bartholomew Herbert Henry Adams, his family of brothers and Isabella you ask? Those details yet to be revealed too.

There were about three other places that I wanted to stop, and there is a lot more to hear about Rose’s family and background. Although it has been a long time in being finished, I want to take my time to do it correctly and not be rushed. The next chapter shouldn’t take so long to be published, but my muse has been letting me down since November.

To the people of New Orleans, I apologize for any details that I have wrong about your city. I did a lot of research, but also changed some details as needed.

With the boarding house in New Orleans, I used the historical description for a Creole House for the outside, but the layout and number of rooms inside are different to suit my plot. The action is only just getting started and everything is about to get a whole lot more complicated. This chapter took a long time to write, more than six months, for a number of reasons that nobody needs to hear about. Please know that I continue to work on all of my stories, old, new, being rewritten and yet to come for all my fandoms.

Thank you for reading. I would love to hear what you think about all the additions and this new chapter.

Jules6

Chapter Five – Preparations For Leaving

THE GREEN PEN

By Jules

Author Notes – thank you for everybody who is still reading. It truly means a lot that people are reading after such a long time of being away. I hope you enjoy this next instalment.

This is the second story in my new series, and it would be helpful for you to read Please Tell Someone as this story continues straight into a new page from the ending scenes of that story.

This particular chapter does not have a lot more action happening, but is necessary to set up some of the key events yet to come later in this story and others into the future. There is a lot to cover and introduce, so hopefully I will to it so you can follow easily enough.

The reason for this title will not become apparent until much later in the story, but was thought of ten (10) years ago or more, when the original plot came to me long before I added in the new adoption arc.

Any legal references, laws, requirements for reporting abuse, the steps taken afterwards, court proceedings and outcomes and interview protocols are all fictional. Some are based loosely on real laws and circumstances, but a lot are fabricated to suit my story only and have been changed to suit the plot I have derived. The same with which authorities are involved and their individual roles and responsibilities.

With some of my medical procedures, I have used real techniques and treatments to a certain extent, but there are some that are completely invented for my stories as well and are totally fictional and should not be used for real people. They are used to progress my stories and include for specific scenes as required.

Given that SeaQuest is set in the future, medical technology would have changed greatly, with new procedures and medications and medicines being discovered and put into practice.

Chapter Five – Preparations For Leaving

towards the end of the previous chapter:

Let’s go and tell everybody our good news,” Bridger suggested. “After that, you and I need to start making a list of everything we are going to be taking with us, and anything we could possibly need over four days.”

And now the story continues:

After giving Lucas a few more minutes to get over the shock of his poorly worded invitation, Bridger left his own quarters in the company of the teenager, both heading to the front of the vessel. The Captain had been expecting the boy to be full of questions about what they were going to be doing on their short break away, but was surprised when that didn’t eventuate.

Nathan could tell by the expression on his face, that Lucas was definitely mulling over something on his mind, but whatever the reason was, he wasn’t sharing. As they passed by the moon pool, a few members of Kristin’s science team were in the immediate area, conducting work.

Bridger approached the dome doors, the expectant siren wailed, promptly followed by Chief Crocker’s dutiful announcement of, “Captain on Deck”, showing the proper courtesy and respect.

Commander Ford had been talking to Miguel Ortiz as the Captain entered, but postponed any further discussions and approached his Commanding Officer. “Captain, Sir,” he cordially greeted the man. Bridger seemed quite pleased with himself, so he could only assume that his talk with Lucas had ended positively in his favour.

“I have some news, Commander, or should I say, ‘we’ have some news,” Bridger stated, expecting the teenager to have followed and be standing only a few steps behind him and sharing their good fortune.

“We, Sir?” Jonathan queried, not seeing anybody else standing alongside him.

The Captain was puzzled by the man’s question until he noticed that Lucas was nowhere to be seen. He turned back towards the dome doors, but there was only Crocker standing nearby. “I could have sworn…..,” he began to say, but didn’t finish the comment.

“Lucas was headed here with me after we left my quarters, but perhaps it is better to organize a short impromptu meeting in the Ward Room,” Bridger explained. “For those directly involved, Commander. Yourself, Mr Ortiz, and Mr O’Neill, for about ten minutes of your time. I will locate our wayward teenager and Doctor Westphalen and have them meet us there as well.”

“Noted, Sir, and we will be there momentarily,” the dark-skinned Commander answered. He watched the Captain leave the Bridge again, and approached Miguel and Tim, telling them quietly about the meeting about to take place in the Ward Room.

Nathan walked back in the direction he had come from, spotting Lucas standing near the moon pool and talking quietly to Kristin. She must have spotted him and stopped him to talk, interrupting his continuation to the Bridge. “There you are. I got to the Bridge before I realised you were missing.”

“Sorry, I got side-tracked for a minute,” the teenager gave in apology. “I was intending to get a drink from the mess hall.”

“No matter, I may as well let both of you know together, there is a small meeting about to take place in the Ward Room in approximately ten minutes. What I want to discuss won’t take long, and there is only going to be a few people present,” the Captain informed them. “Grab your drink, and meet us there please?”

“Sure, I can do that,” Lucas readily agreed, changing direction and heading towards the mess hall. Thankfully, his mood and tone of voice had definitely changed from what it had been only half an hour ago.

Bridger and Kristin watched him leave the area for a few seconds. Nathan walked a few steps towards the moon pool and leaned on the edge, the tension across his shoulders noticeable to Kristin. Darwin was currently swimming outside in the open ocean.

“If it wasn’t for the fact that I have finished speaking to Lucas about going away on this short break, from the downcast look on your face, one could be safe in assuming that he had rejected your offer,” she commented. “Something troubling you that you want to share?”

“It nearly went so very badly, Kristin,” Bridger told her quietly, the emotion and guilt in his voice evident. At first Kristin thought that he might have been over-reacting, but she could see that was not the case at all. The current body language and facial expression were all wrong for the man.

The Captain looked back at her and decided she deserved to hear the truth. “I was trying sound tactful and persuasive when bringing up the subject, but in the end all I did was make him feel distrustful and fearful. For a moment, he wanted to get as far away from me as possible, and was almost running to get out of the room.”

“What happened?” the red-haired doctor asked, recognizing that whatever had occurred, wasn’t so trivial to Nathan. She wanted to be supportive and was trying to understand without carelessly ignoring or brushing aside his train of thought. Sometimes, the strongest people had their hardened exterior take a beating. Even with the best of intentions and planning to do the right thing; unpredictability could cause miscommunication.

Bridger didn’t want to repeat word for word what he had said, and instead gave her the blunt end of the conversation. “Lucas thought I was going to be removing him from SeaQuest, permanently. Can you even image that? Even after the numerous assurances and promises following what we have discovered about his home life. I never want to see that combination of disappointment and accusation directed towards me again.”

“The worst part was that, somehow, he was accepting that such a decision had been made without him, and that he owed a debt to others for putting up with him. How am I supposed to respond, when he looks back at me and proclaims ‘that he doesn’t have anywhere else to go’?” Nathan asked rhetorically, not expecting her to answer.

“I am quite confident when I state, that what you said to him would have been construed as a misunderstanding,” Kristin replied, trying to give the situation a small positive spin. She hadn’t been given a full account, but as far as she was concerned, there didn’t need to be. With Lucas’ state of mind over the past few days, it wouldn’t have taken much for him to jump to the wrong conclusion and feel hurt as the result. Thankfully, everything must have been corrected, and the boy had been made aware of the true nature of his intentions.

“When we were talking here together only a few minutes ago, he was a little apprehensive. But, I think that was because this is a whole new experience for him, not because of some mistake you made. Come on, let’s get to your meeting and you will be able to see for yourself,” she encouraged. “He may not have been cheering out loud, but from my own observations, Lucas was genuinely excited about going.”

Nathan stood up, glancing back at the doctor, and saw conviction and belief in what she was saying to him. She wasn’t trying to downplay his sense of inadequacy in a parental role or dampen his poor choice of words to say, as though none of it mattered at all. However, she wasn’t about to let him wallow in his own self-pity either. Kristin was giving him both a pep talk and the kick up the butt at the same time that he needed.

“Thanks,” was all he said, meant partly as an apology, and mostly in gratitude. Nothing else needed to be exchanged between them.

Both of them headed to the Ward Room, ready to make their news public.

______________________________________________________________________________

Lucas ambled into the mess hall, not expecting find many people about since it was past breakfast time. He was pleasantly surprised to see a dark-haired Ben Krieg seated at one of the tables, sharing a cup of coffee with the Head Chef, Don. He continued over to one of the new drink fridges, and retrieved a plastic bottle before joining the two men.

“Lucas,” Ben greeted him as he put down his empty cup. “Just finishing up here.”

“Hey, Ben,” the teenager replied, watching the man’s face carefully to see if he could detect anything going on with his friend without asking a direct question. He took the top off the juice bottle and drank from it, hoping to mask his actions from appearing too deliberate.

“Good to see you come back like you promised, Lucas,” Don said in greeting, though a little surprised to see the teenager so soon.

“Come back?” Krieg asked. “Have you had breakfast today?”

“Why does everybody keep asking me that question?” Lucas responded with slight annoyance, not wanting to sound like he was complaining. “Yes, thank you I have, and Don there can be my character witness to the fact that I have eaten at least once today already.”

“He was enjoying, and put a good dent in a dish of my mother’s home-made lasagne recipe that I have planned for tonight’s menu, Ben,” Don confirmed.

“Lasagne? For breakfast?” Ben queried with a chuckle. “Are you attempting to corrupt him with your mother’s cooking at every opportunity? And yet again I don’t recall that special offer being made to me this morning as a choice?”

“You won’t be getting any with that attitude either, Krieg,” Don chastised as he got up from the table. “Lucas volunteered to be my taste tester for the day. Like I told your Captain when he came across us in here earlier, we were talking some serious matters, namely ex-wives and girlfriends.”

“You were not?” Ben challenged, but looked over at Lucas, who nodded his head and attested to such a statement with a grin to the topics they had shared. “Next time come and get me, I have a few stories that you would scarcely believe.”

“I am sure that you do, but none of us has that kind of time on our hands, Krieg,” Don teased, and openly laughed at the corresponding scowl that he received in return. “On that note, I will leave you good people alone, some of us around here have work to do,” he poked in fun for the Lieutenant’s benefit as he headed back to the kitchen.

“I only came in to get a drink. The Captain is having a meeting in Ward Room in a few minutes,” Lucas explained. “Did he tell you about it?”

“I only woke up a short time ago and came in here first,” Ben replied. “I haven’t had a chance to talk to anybody yet except you, Don and my coffee cup. Do you know what the meeting is about?”

“Did you manage to catch up on your sleep?” Lucas asked.

“Not as much as I would have liked, but enough for now,” Ben answered truthfully. “You weren’t worried about me were you?” but he could see the answer for himself on the boy’s face and caught the tell-tone catch in his voice. “For some reason I just couldn’t sleep well during the night and I asked Ford to alter the roster,” he added without going into specifics.

“Yeah, that is what the Commander, and Bridger said after a few people around here confirmed that they had seen and talked to you earlier this morning,” Lucas said, glancing down at the table. “I didn’t mean to pry, but wanted to make sure you weren’t sick or something. I told them that I was awake for a good part of last night and would have kept you company if I had known.”

“Noted for next time. Thank you for the concern, it is appreciated, but nothing to worry about I promise,” Ben reported. “You were awake too last night?” he asked, keeping up the subterfuge of his nocturnal activities.

The teenager looked over towards the door, and then into the kitchen where the Chef was going about his duties, before taking a seat across from his friend. Lucas didn’t answer the question about his own lost sleep, but his demeanour changed to being skiddish and wary.

“Bridger requested that I meet him in his quarters this morning to have a talk,” Lucas told him, looking up at Ben as he finished the sentence.

“What’s going on?” he said, seeing the boy hedging and struggling to maintain eye contact, but wanting to say something. A minute ago he was ready to head to Bridger’s meeting. The teenager was fidgeting and playing with what was in his hands, giving off wistful vibes. For the next twenty seconds, Lucas went about playing with the plastic lid from the juice bottle before giving his answer.

“Well, at first I didn’t know what he wanted to talk to me about, and Kristin didn’t give any clues away after she finished checking my stitches. I asked her. Both Bridger and I turned up late, but then he started pacing back and forth around the room, like he was hesitating,” he continued describing the story.

‘Like you are doing right now’ Krieg thought to himself, but wasn’t going to say it out loud.

“I was beginning to feel on edge and uneasy, because other talks that we have had in there before today, hadn’t delivered good news.” Lucas didn’t elaborate further on that point further, hoping that Ben was astute enough to know what other time he had meant. He had been referring specifically to the time the Captain had wanted to be honest, and told him about other people finding out about his father’s mistreatment.

“I hope it was something good this time around?” Ben asked, trying to keep the atmosphere between them positive.

“You know, it almost wasn’t……………….,” Lucas started, and then stopped, still using his hands to quell his growing melancholy. The teenager began running the tip of his index finger around the top of the juice container. Attempting to keep his concentration somewhere else. “A stupid mistake on my part one might say,” he remarked, followed by a hollow laugh.

For a moment, he almost got up from the table and left the mess hall without continuing, but then stopped himself, knowing that he wasn’t being totally fair to Ben. He was the one that had brought up the whole incident. It was his mind that was seeking and demanding some kind of weird validation from someone, that what he had felt was completely understandable.

“Hey, tell me what happened?” Ben asked gently, seeing that whatever had happened, was causing the boy’s mood to swing and change considerably from when Don was present, only a few minutes ago.

“Bridger will tell you that he worded it wrong…………….,” he continued, but then paused again, looking up towards the ceiling and feeling like a heel all over again. Self-doubt was badgering him from within on all sides and causing the negative voices to echo loudly in response to any rational thoughts.

The Captain didn’t deserve the blame for his mind that was always reminding him of the precarious and temporary situation he currently found himself living in. He hadn’t anticipated that thinking about it again would cause those feelings to bubble up again, but here they were. He was having trouble separating them and dismissing them entirely.

“I thought he was taking me off SeaQuest permanently.”

For few seconds, Ben couldn’t think of a single thing to say in reply. Doing the best he could, and not wanting to provide any chance of bad thoughts to sow and take hold again, he spoke. “You do know that Captain Bridger wouldn’t allow such a thing right?”

Lucas nodded his head with acceptance, but couldn’t find the words to reply.

Ben decided to get in first and bolster his flagging confidence, “Don’t worry. I have got your back too. And you know there are other crew members on-board here that do too, and we are all in your corner.” Krieg knew that bringing up his father’s name now and promising that what he had suffered in the past wouldn’t happen again, would help raise the boy’s spirits.

“I do know that,” Lucas said truthfully, “Sometimes my brain goes off course for awhile and causes the rest of me to react automatically. In the past, it has done that before I have had much of a chance to think through what has been said to me. The teenager felt very uncomfortable in accepting that other people knew something about his home life, but there was very little he could do now to change that.

“So what did he word so wrong? Ben questioned, wanting keep the conversation going, and to prevent the boy’s mood from continuing down the path it was on, and tumbling off the proverbial cliff.

“I panicked too early, but the Captain was apologetic and was beating himself up for the mistake once he realised. There were some choice words, followed by a few tense moments on my part….,” Lucas began to explain, leaving out any specifics, and glossing over how much emotion had been swirling around in the Captain’s quarters. “Everything was smoothed out after he got to tell me his real plan. Admiral Noyce is giving him some shore leave due to him. He is intending on going back to his island home, and asked me if I would like to come with him.”

“Bridger asked you to go with him?” Krieg asked. “Wow, that is a terrific opportunity for you.”

“Before I left the Bridge to visit Kristin, Commander Ford was telling Bridger that his orders about the SeaQuest going somewhere were being carried out. I am sure that you have already noticed by now that we are currently under-way, and headed into deeper water so that the vessel can manoeuvre better outside the harbour. Admiral Noyce has ordered the Captain to start heading towards the Florida Keys today. He wants Commander Hitchcock to put on some show to a group of foreign ambassadors to prove that she is ready to start going on missions,” the teenager divulged.

“I, for one, am pleased that someone is getting to hear the good news happening around here for a change, and willing to share. I am usually the last person on-board to get told anything resembling important, noteworthy or even idle gossip,” Ben remarked. “Considering how nuts the schedule is around here at the moment, I wonder how Bridger managed to wrangle any leave from the brass?”

“The Captain didn’t go into all those details with someone like me, but he did invite Kristin too, and she agreed,” Lucas informed Ben. “Bridger intends to make arrangements for all three of us to leave here tomorrow morning.”

“Both of them away at the same time!” Krieg said in astonishment. “Plus you as well. This place is going to be very quiet and dull for a few days. Not to worry though, I will take care of your dolphin for you while you and the Captain are away relaxing.

“Oh, that is where there is more good news, you won’t have to, Ben,” Lucas declared, with the first sign of a small grin since sitting down. “Bridger has already confirmed that Darwin is going to be coming too! I don’t know what we will be doing there for those days, but the Captain said the weather should be great. A whole lot of sand, water and sun I guess.”

“Nice to know that it will be us working people left on-board here, while the three of you are off enjoying yourself,” Krieg joked. “Quite the adventure you and Doctor Westphalen will be able to have, going away with the Captain. How long did he say you were going to be away?”

“Four days, but I did put in a good word on your behalf, and said you could use a break too,” Lucas commented. “Sorry to say that Bridger vetoed you coming along for that whole time. The reason he gave was that the U.E.O. wouldn’t allow too many members of the crew to be away at the same time.”

“No, I guess they wouldn’t allow that,” Krieg replied. “Thanks for putting up my name though, I do appreciate that. I could do with a vacation too.”

“Bridger made a comment about arranging for you, and a few others to come on the last day for a barbecue, and stay overnight. I don’t know all the details yet or who else he is intending to invite, but he did mention that someone he knows will be picking up the people who are coming, and take them to his place.”

“Come on, we had better go and get to this meeting, or it will be finished without us,” Ben suggested, getting up from the table. “We can talk more on the way.”

“The Captain mentioned about getting you to help with the preparations this afternoon,” Lucas said, joining his friend and they headed towards the exit of the mess hall.

Before they reached the corridor, Ben was watching the teenager carefully for any signs that he was still carrying around negative thoughts. He even went one step further to confirm beyond the shadow of a doubt for his own peace of mind. “All good for now?”

“Yeah, sure, thanks for listening and letting me burden you there for a few minutes,” Lucas replied, jamming his hands into his pockets and being hard on himself for feeling that way.

The conversation between the two friends dried up a little as their made their way through the corridors of the vessel, heading to the Ward Room. Ben reignited their easy camaraderie, asking about his visit with Kristin. “Did the doctor have a good report card to give when you saw her earlier today?”

“Kristin said that everything is on the mend,” Lucas answered, and he was tempted to leave his response at that. But Ben had this way of making him feel like he needed to give a fuller account in his own words. “My hip isn’t hurting so much when I am walking around now; it twinges when I have been standing or sitting in the same place for too long. She expects that the stitches can come out soon. The bruising is still too dark for her liking and won’t begin to fade for another two more weeks.”

“Nice to hear that you are hurting less,” Ben commented. He was certain that a twinge felt completely different for Lucas.

Inwardly, Krieg’s mind was taking him back to when he first saw the bruising on the teenager’s back. Watching the kid receive stitches was something he was trying real hard to push aside in his mind and forget.

______________________________________________________________________

The two friends casually walked into the Ward Room, but were surprised to see that Captain Bridger and Kristin were the only ones seated at the table.

“There you two are, I was just about to send out a search party for you,” Bridger joked, but looked genuinely pleased to see both of them.

“I mentioned that to our young friend here as we left the mess hall that you might would be looking for us,” Krieg answered. “The two of us got caught up a little ourselves,” he added, but the look he shared with the Captain said a whole lot more. There was a catch in Ben’s voice that also caught Bridger’s attention.

Nathan nodded his head in understanding, recognising that he would have to wait until Lucas was out of earshot to hear what else Ben had to tell him and Kristin.

“Not to worry, it won’t take long to catch you up on what was discussed around the table,” Kristin remarked with an encouraging smile.

“Where did everybody else go?” Lucas queried, glancing about the room.

“Commander Ford, Tim and Miguel were here,” Bridger answered. “They all have other day-to-day duties that need attending to, so I couldn’t keep them from those tasks for too long. Everything went smoothly enough.”

“I am sorry to tell you, Captain, that I sort of let the cat out of the bag early to Ben,” the teenager owned up. “Though, I wasn’t totally sure of some details, and may have missed a few points or gotten them wrong.”

“Not to worry, Lucas, I guess he was going to find out when he got here sooner, rather than later,” Nathan replied, seeing the slightly apologetic expression on his face.

“Lucas tells me that you are planning to take some leave, Sir?” Ben asked, giving up what little he knew. “Bound for somewhere in the Florida Keys; should be exceptionally nice weather there this time of year.”

“Yes, Ben, I am. I have also persuaded Doctor Westphalen here to come along,” the Captain answered. “Lucas has agreed to join us too. I hope that he will enjoy the break away as much as we will.”

“Persuaded?” The doctor was ready to argue that point. “More like twisting my arm,” she conveyed, but the smile on her face gave away that she was pleased to be going as well. She was a strong advocate for improving all aspects of Lucas’ health, and if part of that had to be done away from SeaQuest, then so be it.

“I have spoken to Commander Ford, and filled him on the details of our destination tomorrow, and that of the SeaQuest herself,” the Captain stated. “My next assignment will be talking to Commander Hitchcock, and gauging her interest about conducting the tour for the high-ranking personnel at one of the naval bases.”

“Sounds like something Katie would relish doing, Sir,” Krieg commented. “Like I said before, her knowledge of this internal workings of this vessel are second to none.”

“Thank you, Ben, I think she will do just fine as well,” Nathan responded. “I do think she is the right choice on this occasion.”

“On the fourth day, Ben, I will make arrangements for yourself, Miguel, Tim and Jonathan to be brought to my island. A little sand and sun for all, and we can have a barbecue down on the beach that night with a camp fire,” Bridger explained.

“Well, I certainly don’t want to miss out on such a generous invitation, Sir,” Krieg answered with a grin. “Do you have enough room for us to stay overnight?”

“Yes, but the accommodations may not be what everyone would normally be used to. Unfortunately, they won’t even be indoors, but it is the best I can offer on this occasion,” Nathan answered with a grin. “So, Mr Krieg, we will be needing sleeping gear for all those attending.”

“Don’t worry, Sir, camping out for one night should be great,” Ben remarked. “Underneath the stars, the cool breeze blowing through the palm trees, the sound of the waves along the shoreline……”

“You don’t have to sell me the glossy colour travel brochure, Lieutenant, I already bought the place,” Bridger said a laugh.

In the back of his mind, he was already tallying up the number of tents and sleeping bags he would need to requisition from supply. Looking over at the teenager beside him, and noting Lucas’ earlier comment about this being a new experience, a few other ideas started to formulate in his head of how to extend the fun for all those involved.

“These next few days should be very interesting!” Lucas said with a little more animation coming into his voice. “I haven’t done this before, so it will all be new to me what and how much we need to take. What did you need me to help with to get ready?”

The teenager hadn’t given his words a second thought, silently, the three adults felt a small knot of dismay ball up at hearing such an honest statement. This break away was definitely long overdue.

The talk he had with Ben had gone a long way towards bringing some of the emotions to the surface that he had been trying to deal with from Bridger’s quarters. The teenager’s mood had improved quite a bit since the mess hall. The butterflies of excitement that he had felt only a short time ago were mustering again.

“How about you go and get your bag packed,” the Captain suggested. “Kristin and I need to talk to Don the chef, and provide him a list of the food items and other provisions that we will need to take with us. Anything in particular you want to add to that list?”

In the back of his mind, Lucas didn’t want to tell them out loud that there wasn’t really anything to pack. The couple of sets of clothes that he owned were still in the small bag in his room that he had brought on-board. There never seemed much point in taking them out, only to put them in a drawer or closet out of sight again.

“Not that I can think of right now,” the teenager answered, not really taking too much time to think about what he would be wanting to eat. Those were minor details surely and honestly didn’t matter so much to him.

“I have a few things to talk to Ben about in relation to the non-food supplies that I am intending to take home,” Bridger informed Lucas. “Later on this afternoon, you can help load the gear, and get the launch prepared that we will be leaving on in the morning?”

“Sure, I can help with that,” Lucas readily agreed.

“Kristin may need some help getting together what she will be needing to take,” Nathan commented, looking at the doctor as he spoke. The doctor nodded her head in thanks for the offer of assistance.

“Be mindful of your stitches, please,” Kristin forewarned. “Nothing too heavy on your own just yet,” the doctor added, speaking to Lucas, but then glancing over at Ben, silently seeking his co-operation and adherence to her request.

Mentally, Doctor Westphalen was currently making a list of her own. The basics of course apart from her own personal belongings, but then there were a few other items that she could think of. In the past, she was often accused of being too prepared and taking too much that never even got unpacked.

“On that note, I am leaving before you find anything else to remind me about,” Lucas stated, trying to get out of her spotlight. “Come and find me when you are ready for me to help, Ben.”

The three adults watched the teenager as he left the Ward room, headed elsewhere on the vessel. He hadn’t told them what his immediate plans were apart from packing his bag.

_____________________________________________________________________________

Bridger sat down on a chair at the large oval table, clearly relieved that everything about tomorrow’s trip was beginning to fall into place. Up until now, there had been few times where his own self- confidence began to waver. The stead-fast and strong Captain, overseeing a large vessel took a step back and been replaced by an ordinary man.

“See, you had nothing to worry about,” Kristin said in support. “He is genuinely looking forward to going. Those four days will prove to be the boost he needs at the moment.”

“I know, you were right,” Nathan replied. “Thankfully, he does sound pleased and curious. I can only hope that lasts for the time away.”

Kristin looked over to Ben, wanting to provide him some kind of explanation. “The Captain here was beating himself up a short time ago because of a misunderstanding that wasn’t received well.”

“Yeah, I can guess,” Krieg said with knowing tone to his voice. “No doubt, for the same reason why Lucas and I were late coming here in the first place.”

Nathan looked up sharply to the dark-haired man at this admission with fresh concern, “Lucas said something to you about how I asked him?”

“Yes. He stayed behind when it was just the two of us in the mess hall, but I could tell something was bothering him. The kid was looking around nervously of course, and cagey, making sure that nobody else would overhear, and it would be fair to say that it was weighing heavily on his mind,” Ben answered. “But, Sir, he was blaming himself more than you for the misinterpretation.”

“Blaming himself?” Bridger responded, standing up and wanting to go and find the teenager and repeat his apology all over again.

“I almost made the mistake of thinking it was something trivial,” Ben continued. “Don had finished chatting to the two of us, and went back into the kitchen. Lucas was more worried about checking up on me and not sleeping the night before. When I pressed him a little harder to find out what was going on, he sat down and told me what had transpired.”

Krieg could see that the Captain had been affected as much as Lucas, but for different reasons. “Sir, honestly, I wouldn’t be saying this to you now if I didn’t believe it,” he attested. “He knows that you made a mistake by the way you started asking him, nothing more.”

Bridger was about to say something to counteract that statement, but Krieg pushed back first.

“His fear about being removed from the SeaQuest is a very real one, and justifiable, but it was only for a brief time. Given his background, it is completely understandable, but once he had time to think things through, he said himself that you had worded your offer wrongly.”

“For a few seconds, after he told me what he had been thinking and feeling, I couldn’t have strung two coherent words together,” Krieg admitted. “You could have knocked me over with a feather.”

“What did you end up saying to him?” Kristin asked. “Whatever it was must have worked, considering the mood we saw he was in only a few minutes go,” ” she added with gratitude.

“I made sure that Lucas knew, that you wouldn’t want or allow him to leave SeaQuest, until you were convinced it was safe for him to do so, Sir,” Krieg answered, speaking to Bridger, but keeping the doctor in the loop, knowing that she cared too.

Kristin may have been thinking of the Captain at this time, but she was probably carrying enough worry of her own around.

“I told him that I would always around as a back-up as well, and that there were plenty of other people on-board that wanted to help him. Something that he may know, but I felt needed to be repeated with emphasis.”

“Thank you, Ben, thank you,” Bridger remarked, knowing that the man wasn’t looking for praise, but he had certainly earned it in his opinion. Pleased to hear that for the first time, Lucas had opened up and spoken to someone else apart from himself or Kristin.

“Nothing to be thanking me for,” Ben replied. “After we had talked a little more, he went onto explain that his reaction was something that his brain does automatically in certain situations. Once he was a little more at ease, that is when he told me about the plans you had both discussed. He was a little sketchy on the details of who you were planning to invite to stay overnight.”

Krieg watched Bridger, trying to gain some insight on his mood after hearing his explanations. The Captain wasn’t giving a lot away though, so Ben decided it was his place as morale officer to put some positivity back into the preparations.

“Now that you have gotten Lucas to agree to going along, it is time to get organised and set it up so the trip will be a total blast for him,” Ben suggested.

Bridger glanced back at Ben, finally giving a wry grin, “You are absolutely right, let’s get started.”

“A time for relaxation and to recharge ones batteries, Ben,” Kristin interjected, “Not a blast as you so ineloquently put it. Taking a break. Your suggestion remember was that Lucas needed time off, not a party?”

“That is what I meant, Doc,” Krieg returned in his own defence, hoping that the teenager would be having some fun as well.

On the table, there were a number of pieces of paper that Krieg had yet to view. The Captain held the first list up, but didn’t hand it over completely.

“That is a list of the food items that Kristin and I came up with that I am planning to take with us on-board the launch in the morning,” Bridger explained. “Together, I think we have made a mix of healthy choices, but fun too. Meals that should be easy to make in an island setting, and will give variety. I didn’t want Kristin or myself to be spending the whole time away cooking. We have both agreed to share the responsibility.”

“Between us, I hope that we can entice Lucas into helping out a little too, and teach him a couple of simple things that he can make for himself. Tasty to eat, but don’t require many ingredients or preparation time,” Kristin added.

Ben took a step forward to take a closer look at the list, and was making a few positive and negative muttering sounds as his eyes scanned down the page. “You have certainly thought carefully about it, Sir.”

“Hot dogs on the first night, outdoors, that should go down a real treat,” Krieg remarked. “I know what I like on mine.”

“I have no idea what Lucas may or may not like on his, so I decided on a variety of the usual toppings that he can choose from,” Bridger said.

“Not doubting your choices, Sir, truly, but it would probably be a good idea to include some of those other alternatives that I had brought on-board, like the noodles and the ice-cream, just in case,” Ben pointed out. As his index finger moved down the list, he didn’t see anything out of the ordinary until he reach the fruit and vegetables.

“Why do the bananas and oranges have asterisk marks beside them, Sir?” Ben asked in curiosity. “There are plenty on-board, I just delivered fresh stocks to Don earlier this week. I have no idea why the U.E.O. send us so many bananas. I know Chief Crocker likes them but he is not the only one, and we currently have enough to support a entire colony of chimpanzees.”

Kristin couldn’t help but hold back a small laugh at Ben’s comments about the copious amount of the delicious yellow fruit currently being kept on-board. Until now, she had no idea that Manilow liked bananas that much.

“I marked those specifically to gain a few extras from Don in the supplies that we take with us,” Bridger stated. “They don’t have to be perfect, and even though they are all grown hydroponically now, they will still suffice. A little natural experiment that I thought Lucas may enjoy helping me set up after breakfast one morning. I am keeping my plans under wraps for now, so not a word to Lucas, please.”

The expression on Krieg’s face said it all. He was trying to think what the Captain had in mind, but was coming up blank. He didn’t want to spoil any surprise he had in mind for the teenager. Ben was sure that he would hear whether the experiment was a success or not at a later time.

“Now you have me curious as well, Nathan,” Kristin replied, intrigued as much as Ben for the reason behind the extra fruit items.

“Speaking of not being perfect, I fully support your idea to hold a barbecue on the night that we arrive,” the Lieutenant began, “Since real ground beef has now been outlawed and made illegal, grilling the created meat products is not going to be the same. I want to put that out there on the record. My days of being able to enjoy a real cheeseburger with my grandfather are long gone, but I can still dream.”

“I am sure everyone will enjoy what is on offer and there will be plenty to go around,” Bridger predicted. “Off the record, it has been a long time since I had a real burger of any kind. I used to enjoy them too occasionally.”

Ben’s eyes widened with delight when he saw the next set of ingredients on the list. “Smores, I haven’t had those since my academy days down by the beach. All that gooey chocolate. I hope you are planning to roast the marshmallows over an open fire, Sir?”

“After the barbecue, I thought we could have a camp fire down on the beach,” the Captain suggested. “A few chairs on the sand, under the moonlight night.”

“Sounds very warm and indulgent, I must say,” Kristin commented. “In England it was difficult to find a suitable substitute for the crackers that you use over here. When I was studying and began my intern-ship, there were weekends where we would attend a manor house out of the city. Each person would bring what we needed. Sometimes the end product wouldn’t be exactly edible, and the marshmallows were often burnt rather than melted. Good times and great friendships were formed,” she remembered fondly.

“Now that I have your approval of my list, Lieutenant,” Bridger said with a smile, deliberately using the man’s rank and pulling the piece of paper out of view. “This is the list that I want you to attend to as soon as possible. That one is not as comprehensive as the one you were reading.”

A second piece of paper was produced, this one he did hand over to Krieg, and watched patiently as the man glanced down the list of items.

“Those activities I have planned should keep everyone occupied for the day until the barbecue,” Bridger stated. “If you can think of anything that I have left off by mistake, or want to add anything, please do, within reason of course. We are only away for four days, and have to pack everything up again to return here. Anything else should be available in my shed once we arrive.”

“I am heading to the mess hall for a cup of coffee, and to talk to Don,” Bridger informed Ben.

“I will join you for the coffee, Nathan, but after that I need to start putting together what I plan to take,” Kristin replied. “I want to spend some time talking to Mr Levine for the majority of the afternoon, to ensure he has everything he needs during my absence.”

“I just came from the mess hall, Sir, so I will go ahead and make a start on getting the items on this list ready for you,” Krieg opted. “I will do as you asked and find Lucas once I am ready to start loading the launch.”

“After I finished talking to the chef, I will be talking to Commander Hitchcock, but no doubt you and I are going to need to talk to each other through the rest of the afternoon about a number of things. If you need me, please come and find me, I will make time to help with whatever you need.”

“I will meet you in the mess hall for that cup of coffee in a few minutes, Nathan,” Kristin said as she excused herself. “Mr Krieg, I may need some assistance from you a little later.”

______________________________________________________________________________

“I will be ready any time you are, Doctor Westphalen,” Ben answered. The two men watched Kristin walk away from the Ward room towards the mess hall.

Krieg had held back a little before leaving, expecting that the Captain wanted to have a few words between the two of them.

“Thanks for waiting behind, Ben,” Bridger spoke in gratitude. “I wanted to ask you about carrying out a quiet favour or two?”

“No problem at all, Sir, what else did you need?”

“I don’t know if you noticed or not when Lucas was here, but Kristin and I certainly did. He still hasn’t caught up on a whole lot of sleep. Lucas didn’t say what other things he was going to be doing this afternoon, but I don’t want it to be more computer work. That is why I brought up the premise of him helping you load the launch, and for you to give him some proper instruction on where to find everything. If we can keep him occupied for a few hours, then perhaps we can wear him out a little more and he will be tired enough to get a few hours of decent rest tonight. There will be plenty of marine creatures and plant life for him to see once we are in the shallower waters, when we leave in the morning.”

“Consider it done, Sir. To his credit, he is holding up rather well considering how much sleep he admitted to missing out on,” Ben noted. “I will make time to have dinner with him later this evening, to ensure that he eats something else today.”

“A second favour, please,” Bridger requested. “This one is on a more personal note. Amongst your crew uniform stores, do you have any spare or extras of those black baseball caps with the SeaQuest logo available?

“I should do, Sir…….. I will check, oh you want to give Lucas one,” Ben said with a grin once the penny dropped and he understood the man’s intentions. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before. He should have been given one already when he first came on-board. I am sure there will be one that will fit comfortably. I will come and find you when I have located the correct box. A nice touch, Captain.”

“Thanks, I don’t even know if he likes those kind, and I haven’t seen him wearing one,” Bridger commented. “He will need to take advantage of using a number of different ways for sun protection over the next few days. The temperatures are much warmer this time of year, and the glare off the water can be brutal. The heat can quickly cause sun-burn and headaches for anyone that is not being vigilant enough about how much time they have spent outside”

“For someone like Lucas, with fair skin, he will need to ensure that he wears enough protective clothing from the harsh rays during extended periods of exposure. Kristin has a fair complexion and red-hair. During the parts of the day where the sun is directly overhead in the sky, it would be better to stay in a shady spot and to keep hydrated.”

Krieg moved towards the door to the room, preparing to leave and start on the preparations. “Glad to hear that you are thinking well ahead, Sir. With both you and Doctor Westphalen for company, and looking out for his best interests, Lucas is bound to have a great time.”

‘I hope you are right, Ben’ Bridger thought to himself as he left the Ward Room to go and meet up with Kristin for that cup of coffee.

In his right hand, he was carrying the list that of food items he was planning to give to the chef.

______________________________________________________________________________

Kristin Westphalen had just finished draining her mug of coffee, when she saw the Captain walk through the doors. She caught a glimpse of his unspoken apology, “For a minute, I thought you must have changed your mind about sharing a cup, Nathan.”

“Sorry, I got caught up talking to Ben for a few more minutes,” he replied. “I might have to take a rain check. I want to give this list to Don, and then I need to talk to Commander Hitchcock as SeaQuest gets further out into the harbour and before we reach open waters. I wanted to personally brief her on what I will be requesting her to do.”

“I will hold you to that rain check, Captain,” Kristin taunted, but didn’t pursue what the two men had spoken about after she left. The doctor was certain if they wanted her input, or for her to know, she would have been included.

As the two spoke, Don, the head chef approached from the kitchen, looking down at his watch to check the time before he greeted the man, “Hello again, Captain. Are you able to talk more freely with me this time around, since I don’t see young Lucas with you?”

“I am sorry about that, Don, I didn’t mean to put you in an awkward situation in front of Lucas,” Bridger replied. “I wanted to talk to him before I revealed my plans to others on-board such as yourself. I wasn’t sure if he would be open to the idea or not.”

“No trouble at all, Captain, I knew you would explain in your own time,” Don responded. “Ben appeared to be having an intense conversation with Lucas in here earlier today. What do you have there?”

“Right now, the SeaQuest is headed for the Florida Keys on a mission sanctioned by Admiral Noyce,” Nathan answered. “I have been granted a few days leave. Lucas and Kristin have both agreed to accompany me during that time to take advantage of the weather for some relaxation.”

“A break away at any time sounds good, but particularly in that part of the world,” Don remarked. “I am pleased to hear that Lucas agreed to going. Some outside time and a little healthy activity might be the natural way to increase his appetite.”

“This is a list of the food items that Kristin and I put together, to cover most meal times. There may be a few items that you don’t have in your fridges or store pantry, but don’t be too concerned about anything that you cannot supply. On the fourth day, I have a friend of mine who can drop off any extra supplies that I need, along with a few of the crew members who have been invited to my island home, including Ben.”

Don took the piece of paper from the Captain and began scanning down the list. Nathan made a few more comments as the chef read the meal plan.

“I thought the first night I would do something simple and outdoors,” Bridger explained. “I may be completely out of my depth here in assuming what Lucas will want to eat. Kristin will be taking care of the dinner menu for the third night. The fourth night in intended to be a barbecue on the beach after the other invited crew members arrive.”

“I think what you and Doctor Westphalen have planned out here, will be just fine for any teenager,” Don remarked. “I don’t think the actual food itself being offered is the key to getting him to eat. More like the encouragement of good people such as yourselves keeping an open mind into what he wants and listening is the best course of action. Any kind of forced or regimented meal times isn’t going to work with someone like him from what I have noticed from the short time he has been on-board.”

“In addition to what you see there, Ben suggested including some of those noodle boxes and ice-cream tubs, and that may be a prudent move. In case Lucas isn’t entirely happy with the menu in front of you,” Bridger explained. “Kristin and I tried to come up with options that would suit all of us. The cooking will be a combined effort, but I also wanted some quick and easy options. Evening dinners are planned around spending more time outside together, rather than in the kitchen.

“From what I can see on this list, Captain, the only things that I wouldn’t be able to provide at this time would be the marshmallows, or the crackers for the s’mores,” Don informed them. “Not much opportunity to have an open fire aboard a submarine. I could provide the chocolate though,” he added with a chuckle.

Nathan grinned at the comment about the chocolate. He usually didn’t admit out loud too often, that he occasionally had a sweet tooth for such treats. “Thank you, please mark anything you don’t have. I plan on making contact with my friend later to bring the extras.”

“Speaking of marks, why are there some beside oranges and bananas? Don enquired. “I can give you those in ample quantities.”

“Ben brought up that very same point not too long ago,” Kristin responded. “All Nathan would tell either of us, is that he wants a few extras of both to conduct an experiment with Lucas. We are both curious about their use too.”

“Well then, I will wait until Lucas returns and ask him about what the experiment was all about, and how it went,” the chef replied, but he had no idea what the Captain could have planned that involved humble pieces of fruit.

Don continued surveying the list until he had almost reached the end, “Someone has written down a whole raw chicken. Any meat products or substitutes are processed and packaged before they arrive on the launches and are delivered to me by Ben. Sorry to say, but the best I could do there is provide chicken pieces?”

“That was my addition, Don,” Kristin answered. “I was hoping to be able to cook a whole roast chicken in the oven of Nathan’s kitchen for that night’s evening meal. Pieces will be fine, in lieu of a roast dinner, I can make chicken and dumplings and vegetables. Hearty and filling, and in keeping with your own unique repertoire and source of inspiration for drumming up meals that might tempt Lucas. A recipe my mother made when I was growing up in England.”

“Your making me hungry already,” Nathan remarked at her description. “I am afraid my effort in cooking meals won’t be anywhere near as grand as that. Until recently, I was only used to providing for one person. Darwin catches his own supper when he is swimming in the lagoon.”

“I will see to this list, Captain, and pack everything in a couple of sturdy containers that can easily be loaded on and off a launch,” Don promised. “The items that need colder storage or to be kept frozen for the journey will be packed in a portable unit. They come in very handy for transportation and will maintain the set temperature for quite a number of hours. Everything should remain fresh until you reach your destination.”

“Thank you for your co-operation, Don,” Bridger replied. “I did ask Lucas if there was anything else that he wanted to include, but he remain fairly tight lipped on the subject. Ben will be keeping him occupied later with helping to load the launch, which will include the food storage containers. If he tells you that he would like to add anything, please do.”

“Your list shouldn’t be a problem at all, Captain,” the chef confirmed. “Ma’am, if you think of anything else you would like to add as well, please let me know.”

“Thank you for your diligence,” Kristin commented. “I should be down in the science department for the remainder of the day should you need to ask me a question, or need my assistance.”

“I have a number of other things to organize for the next several hours,” Bridger predicted. “Ben has a fairly good understanding of some of the activities I am planning, that I haven’t told Lucas about yet. I want to try and keep to my intended schedule of leaving first thing in the morning. Like Kristin said, please come and find me and let me know if you have any questions or problems.”

______________________________________________________________________________

Exiting the mess hall, Nathan and Kristin paused in the corridor for a few moments.

“I am going to find Commander Hitchcock and talk to her about Noyce’s plans for the SeaQuest in my absence.”

“What are these other activities that you mentioned a moment ago in there? Mr Krieg gets to know, but I don’t?” Westphalen teased. The doctor knew that he had Lucas’ best interests at heart with any of the planning he was doing.

“I am choosing not give my secrets away to you, Kristin,” Nathan answered with a sly smile. “I want you to enjoy yourself on this short break too.”

“You have me convinced that you are taking this break for the right reasons,” she said with a warm smile. “I will come and find you to talk more later.”

Bridger watched the doctor head down the corridor away from him. A myriad of thoughts were going through his mind, about her agreement to help. Lucas’ mix of hesitation and excitement. Throw that all together with a heaped helping of the unknown, and the outcome of this little jaunt was yet to unfold.

The man knew that Lucas wasn’t going to be the only one surprised on this trip. There were quite a few mysterious rumours surrounding his chosen self-isolation, and speculation about what he got up to there. A part of him did think that he was giving up some of the secrets that he had been keeping. Was he prepared to let some of these people into a way of life where not everybody was willing to understand or accept the reasons why?

______________________________________________________________________________

Commander Katie Hitchcock was in her small office, and was looking over a print out of the various glitches that her engineering team were working diligently on solving.

Her staff had certainly been putting in the hours, but there were still a few niggling problems plaguing a number of the systems. She was intent on establishing a regular maintenance schedule, but that was being thwarted.

She was due to relieve her Executive Officer within the hour, and take over the shift on the Bridge until the early morning hours. When the Commander had informed her only a few hours ago that the SeaQuest would be pulling out of Pearl Harbour and heading towards the Florida Keys, she was most intrigued by the intended destination.

A knock came on the outside of her door. Katie got up to answer it, expecting it to be Jonathan Ford, expanding the details about the mission that had been handed down by the Captain.

Hitchcock turned the hatch and opened the door, and was surprised by a different person standing before her, “Good afternoon, Sir,” she formally greeted the man.

“Good afternoon, I hope I am not taking too much of your valuable time,” Bridger responded politely.

“Not at all, Captain, would you like to come in?” Katie queried, but turning around, she took stock of the small amount of space inside the room and changed her mind. “Forgive me, Sir, but it may be better if I come out there and talk to you. It would be less cramped for the both of us.”

“Wherever you feel most comfortable, Commander,” Bridger conceded. “I see your office has the same problem that Lucas’ small living accommodations has. I wish there was a way to rectify the issue for you too.”

Thankfully for the both of them, the small office that was designated to the Chief Engineer on-board, and located in one of the side corridors. Personally, she preferred any instructions to staff about maintenance schedules to be done face to face. Small electronic tablets, like the one she had provided to Lucas were used for important databases that needed critical data to be recorded. Although both of them could be seen standing together and talking, neither of them expected a significant amount of foot traffic from other crew members, who could potentially interrupt their discussions.

“For now it is manageable, Sir, and fortunately I don’t spend too much time in there on a daily basis,” Katie replied. “My time is currently divided between locating and fixing the glitches we have, and my shifts on the Bridge. There are other rooms that I could use should I require more space to work. I haven’t had the opportunity yet to show you my long term ideas that may help any more faults from emerging.”

“Jonathan did mention to me that you wanted to talk about changes to the Bridge, and I promise that I will give you the audience that you are seeking in due course,” the Captain affirmed.

“Commander Ford has told me that he has already spoken to you briefly about the new orders I gave,” Bridger continued, directing the conversation to current matters at hand. “I am sorry that I didn’t give either of you a heads up, or much time to work with. I know that you have a lot on your plate at the moment, and appreciate the efforts that you and your staff are currently putting in to rectify all the problems. I am sure that you are aware now that the vessel is beginning her slow journey out into open waters?”

“Yes, Sir, Jonathan advised that you gave him instructions about our intended destination,” Katie replied. “He told me that you would be providing an explanation as to the reason we are heading towards the Florida Keys.”

“Admiral Noyce has granted me four days leave starting tomorrow morning,” the Captain explained. “Doctor Westphalen, and Lucas will be accompanying me to my island. The main idea behind the time off is to get Lucas taking a break away from here and learning to relax more.”

“Commander Ford also told me what was spoken about in the Ward Room earlier today, and Lieutenant Krieg noted the workload he has taken on,” Hitchcock commented. “Although we were both happy to have his assistance for the electronic door locks, I hope you understand that neither of us expected him to be carrying out the repairs at the pace he has been maintaining.”

“None of us were aware of the crazy work-load and little sleep schedule he was keeping until Ben’s well-placed hunch and late night surveillance,” Bridger remarked. “Hopefully this short trip will be enough to encourage him to slow down and teach him that he can still contribute to the crew in a useful capacity. Lucas needs to learn that taking care of himself, and getting enough rest are all part of that regime. By the time we return to SeaQuest, a more realistic solution will have to be considered and then hammered out that suits everybody.”

Katie nodded her head as she listened to the Captain’s reasons behind his sudden departure, “Yes, Sir.”

“I have spoken to Jonathan, and instructed that he will be appointed Captain during my initial absence, but that responsibility will be short lived. Once you reach the Key West Naval Base, I have asked him to stand aside as a gentleman, and officially hand over to you as Captain,” Bridger indicated.

“You are probably wondering why I chose yourself specifically on this occasion. Admiral Noyce would have accepted either of you stepping forward for the role.”

“There are three main points to draw your attention to about why I made the personal decision of yourself over him. This isn’t in any way a reflection on previous performance, seniority or experience. Both of you are equally qualified and I am certain, would represent this vessel and manage the crew with professionalism and integrity. As I mentioned to Jonathan, I am not trying to steal his thunder, and I will ensure that there are plenty of opportunities for both of you to take over as Captain in the future and advance your career paths.”

“I would like to hear your answers behind that choice, Sir,” Katie replied, genuinely intrigued. She was aware of her counter-part’s expertise and leadership credentials. Ford had already carried out a number of dangerous missions on this vessel where the stakes had been at their highest. On paper, and given his proven track record, she couldn’t help but be curious about Bridger’s unique way of selecting the most appropriate candidate.

“Firstly, my decision was based due to your extensive knowledge of the area and the base that we are headed to. It has been a long time since I attended the Naval Air Station at Key West myself and I am sure that the place has expanded and changed quite considerably since my last time there. My understanding is that you have spent a considerable amount of time there during your service?”

“Yes, Captain, I did as part of some advanced training programs that I undertook before my last assignment,” Hitchcock answered. “The station itself has gone through some extensive upgrades over several years, and quite a number of federal agencies are now based through there. The base plays a vital role in hosting offshore air combat ranges for a large contingent of Fighter Squadrons there and many other allied military forces.”

“That was explained somewhat to me by the Admiral,” Bridger advised.

“My time there was mainly spent with the Special Forces Underwater Operations,” Katie continued. “I was close to gaining promotion there before I applied for my placement on-board SeaQuest. The opportunity to come here outweighed anything more I could learn there. Not only offering advancement, but the chance to work at a classified and different level of technology than ever before.”

Bridger listened to her reasoning behind leaving the Naval Air Station to accept her role as Chief Engineer. It must have been a difficult decision at the time. Both offered a lot for someone who was driven and wanted to prove themselves, but at the same time, came with additional responsibility and expectations. The Captain knew that such choices often came with unforeseen repercussions in the personal lives of those successful officers.

“The second reason for my selection for this tasks is due to your comprehensive knowledge of the SeaQuest and her internal systems,” Bridger stated. “I know you have worked very hard to gain that level of knowledge and practical hands-on experience. The third reason, is because Jonathan and a few other crew members have been invited to my island on the fourth day, to stay overnight. I am sorry that you are one who will be missing out on this occasion, Commander, but that won’t always be the case.”

“I understand, Sir,” Katie replied, assuming that Bridger would have selected people that Lucas was comfortable being around. “I do appreciate your belief and trust in my abilities to Captain the vessel in your absence.”

“The exact purpose of our mission might sound plain enough on paper as an addendum to the negotiations that we had to grant my leave,” Bridger predicted. “Make no mistake, the Admiral wants to utilise your unique skill set and knowledge to his full advantage. Those plans include having you demonstrate the SeaQuest’s internal systems and external capabilities to a group of senior brass officials who are stationed at the station in Key West.”

“I am prepared to provide a comprehensive first-hand presentation at any time, Sir,” Katie declared confidently. “Has Admiral Noyce advised the schedule for the tours and provided names for the senior military personnel that I will be expecting to host?”

“No he hasn’t, and I don’t expect much communication or assistance in that department if I know Bill as well as I do,” the Captain said. Looking down the corridor in front of them and behind, he made sure that it was just the two of them for the next few remarks he intended for her ears only.

“I have given the same details you heard just now to Jonathan earlier today on our destination and the mission itself,” Bridger forewarned. “What I am about to talk to you about now, is to remain between you and me. Understand?”

“Completely, Sir,” Katie affirmed. Hitchcock didn’t think that Bridger was the kind of Commanding Officer that would deliberately mislead his Executive Officer, without a good reason.

“Whatever Admiral Noyce’s undisclosed plans are, I think he is keeping a lot under his hat, even from me at this point, that won’t be revealed yet,” Nathan spoke candidly. “Don’t let his friendly exterior fool you, he has been at this game a long time. Use your instincts to their maximum capacity about what the true objectives might be for these senior personnel that he is suddenly allowing to snoop around. I suspect they already have high-level clearances in relation to classified projects.”

“I am under no illusion that we are playing a very carefully constructed game of chess, but not all of the pieces are in place yet, Bridger surmised. “I think he has something big planned up his sleeve for the SeaQuest in the not too distant future. This opportunity that he is setting up is much more than a guided tour and to prove that the vessel is ready to show off and demonstrate that she is ready to conduct missions.”

Katie Hitchcock listened intently to the Captain’s theory about the Admiral’s true motivations. Although the pieces of the puzzle had been laid out before her, she hadn’t reached the same level of suspicion yet or been able to draw the conclusions about the secondary reasons behind their current heading.

“The Admiral is trying to persuade a few undecided nations to join the U.E.O. to fall under the umbrella of protection, but I don’t think that is the whole plan either,” Nathan repeating to her what had been changed during the video-link conference. “My gut is telling me that there is more to this set of strings, other than granting my leave and helping Lucas.”

“Do you think that the tour is being politically motivated by higher-level military leaders and other private constituents, putting pressure and demands on the Admiral, Sir?” Hitchcock tried to gauge. “There are quite a lot of smaller nations who would benefit from such an arrangement, but the time frame to do so may not suit them or the SeaQuest.”

“Possibly,” came the short answer. “The Admiral wants to come on-board here once we return to Pearl Harbour, but I haven’t told Lucas that yet. That is not the sort of news that he will be welcoming at all. Somehow I have to plan on finding the right time to tell him, while we are on this break.”

“Yes, Sir, I will make any necessary preparations for his visit and inspection once yourself, Doctor Westphalen and Lucas have left on the launch tomorrow,” Katie replied.

“For the next couple of hours, I will be on the Bridge, overseeing last minute details and that the provisions I have requested are being loaded smoothly,” Bridger said. “I will leave any other day-to-day operational decisions up to you and Jonathan as you work together as a team. Take on everything we have spoken about, but don’t allow it to prevent you from carrying out your duties with a good dose of common sense.”

______________________________________________________________________________

Ben Krieg had spent most of his time after leaving the Captain in preparing the supplies that would be loaded onto the launch. The essentials were taken care of first, and packed into tough, waterproof containers for easier transportation. He made sure that they weren’t overloaded, since there would only be three passengers to unload the cargo once they reached their destination.

There were are few containers that he had secretly been preparing afterwards that would be brought with him and the other crew members joining them later. Things that he wanted to keep as a surprise for Lucas, and items which wouldn’t be needed until that last day and night anyway.

Now he was ready to go and find the teenager and get him to assist in loading the containers. He had started making his way down the corridor towards Mammal Engineering, but stopped as he saw Lucas talking softly to Darwin by the moon pool.

“Hey, I was coming to find you, I thought you were going to be in your cabin getting packed?” Ben asked with enthusiasm. Lucas appeared to be in a fairly good mood, but that may have been due to the dolphin’s presence rather than his own. He was looking for evidence of ‘being excited’ about going on the trip as described by the Captain.

Darwin proceeded to swim away from Lucas’s hand, and out of the moon pool.

“I have only been here a few minutes, and the bag I am taking is ready to go,” the teenager offered. Ben didn’t need to be bothered by the small details, like the fact that there was virtually no packing to be done on his end. The only clothes that he owned were already in the small bag on the floor. He would be wearing the only pair of shoes he owned on the launch.

“The personal luggage can wait until tomorrow morning to finish being loaded, before you depart,” Krieg told him. “Kristin is yet to provide everything that she is taking to me, but a lot of the other containers are complete. So if you still want to help, follow me and I will show you what is done.”

“Let’s go then,” Lucas said with a small grin, and a positive tone of voice. There is was, the touch of buzz that Ben had been watching for, but he wanted it to grow significantly more yet and have the kid as keen as mustard about going.

As they walked together towards the launch bay, Krieg decided to try and start the ball rolling early about the location of this mystery destination. “So have you managed to worm out of the Captain where you are going to yet?”

“No, he wouldn’t give specifics, except that the SeaQuest is headed for the Florida Keys,” Lucas answered.

“Well after we pack the launch, lets you and I get a couple of maps and pour over them during dinner in the mess hall,” Krieg suggested. “There can’t be that may secret places in that part of the world.

“That sounds great,” Lucas replied. “I don’t mind if we don’t find out until after we leave. I think the Captain is planning to the location secret from both I and Kristin. But it might be fun to speculate, even if we get it completely wrong. Unfortunately, I don’t have much experience in being able to read nautical charts though.”

“Count your blessings that you have all the right connections, Lucas, because you don’t need to. I can teach you,” Krieg said with an burst of self-confidence. “I have been reading them successfully for years. Came top of my class during my time at the Academy.”

“You did?” Lucas questioned, impressed by such a declaration. “I will let you guide me then, oh masterful teacher,” the teenager joked.

The two of them sharing a laugh together, and Krieg was pleased that he was keeping the boy’s attention, and making him a willing participant in the preparations.

In the launch bay, three large yellow plastic containers were resting on the floor in the corridor, and along side of them, a mobile trolley.

Lucas tested the tough outer plastic with a light kick of his foot, “These boxes seem pretty versatile from the outside, but are they heavy?”

“No, I took care in making sure that the weight was evenly distributed over the three of them. I probably could have managed with two, but erred on the side of caution this time. The trolley will make it much easier when you get there to unload,” Krieg answered.

“So, what is actually in these boxes?” Curiosity written across his face. He was very tempted to turn one of the locking mechanism’s and lift the lid to peer inside.

“You checking up on my work now?” Krieg taunted. “Don’t you trust me to have everything ready that you will need?”

“Well someone around here has to apart from Commander Ford, he already has enough to do,” Lucas shot back cheekily. “Who knows what you could be smuggling off the SeaQuest.”

Krieg’s eyes widened in mild shock, and his laughter grew at the kid’s spontaneous jibe. Give Lucas more opportunities for his true personality to shine through, and Ben was certain that there would be more fun ahead. The Lieutenant was willing to cop any kind of joke in his direction if that is what it took to get for the boy to relax more. To not have to think about the darker issues currently in his life and stop fearing what the road ahead had in store for him.

“You want to see inside the box? I will show you what is inside the box,” Krieg proclaimed, seeing that the teenager wanted to do that. After lifting the lid, he stepped back so that Lucas could see for himself how neatly the contents were stored.

“Fruits, vegetables, all kinds of food stuff to keep the three of you eating well for those few days,” Ben shared. “Some cooking utensils, though I suspect the Captain will have some useful items in his own kitchen to use.”

“Everything seems to be packed in there well enough,” Lucas gave in critique as he closed the lid and watched how Ben secured the locks. He would need to know how to open them again once they reached the island.

“The interesting stuff that I wanted to show you, isn’t in these boxes my young friend,” Krieg hinted at with a smirk. Placing the trolley into the correct position, the first box was lifted, “Follow me into the launch. I will show you how the boxes are secured to stop them rolling or moving around. There are a few neat things on-board to point out and demonstrate where they are concealed.”

“Concealed?” Lucas replied with intrigue, as he trailed behind the Morale Officer.

“Has anybody told you much about these launches before me?” Krieg asked. “I will leave explaining the controls that the pilot uses for the Captain to explain to you tomorrow.”

“That should be great,” the teenager remarked, as he watched the box being manoeuvred to the side of the launch, away from the doors. Secretly he was looking forward to Bridger showing him how to operate the vessel. “I have been inside one a couple of times now, but there was too many people both times, and I didn’t know anybody to ask at the time.”

“Well, now you do. Me. And I can answer any questions you have at any time. See those small indentations on the floor there and the matching ones alongside of them?” Ben asked, pointing to two sets of four grooves that had been purposefully carved deep into the pieces of metal plate. Eight in total.

“Yeah,” Lucas nodded, but a shrug of his shoulders signalled that he didn’t understand their importance.

“Those little divots may not seen like much, but trust me, on days when the sea is very rough, you will be thanking them in person,” Ben explained. “They are used for stopping large pieces of cargo like these boxes from slamming into you from the other side with force. Not all of the boxes like these have wheels on them, but some do. The U.E.O. operational and safety manual clearly states, that all luggage and supplies need to be secured during any journey.”

“What happens to boxes that don’t have wheels, or are stored on top of other containers?” Lucas queried. On the inside, his stomach was doing a little flip-flopping of its own at the thought of the launch being in rough seas. He hoped he never had to experience that. So far he had been lucky and not felt sick, but he didn’t want to know the opposite.

Krieg opened the front of a storage panel and pulled out a set of long, strongly fibre woven straps that had interconnecting metal fastenings on either end. “These,” Ben held up to show him. There were a number of other cords still stored inside, and a similar sized storage panel below, which probably contained more. “The wheels for boxes on the bottom usually have a small metal brake. For the other pieces of luggage or cargo, these straps are wrapped around and used to secure anything else in place without causing damage. They have strong hooks and other bits for that, and the cord itself is tested to be able to stop large weights from moving if done correctly. Everything is anchored to the floor for even more stability.”

Lucas watched as Ben showed him how the straps worked. He assisted Ben to bring in the other two boxes which were then secured in place as well. He tried to remember each step as it was shown. This being the first time, no doubt he would need to see it done on several more occasions.

Ben looked up and saw the teenager watching intently, “Don’t try and take it all in the first time. Trust me, there is plenty of time for you to learn, and it doesn’t need to be all in one day. It took me quite a long time before I could even get it half right.”

Lucas looked back at him, a little embarrassed that what he was feeling and thinking was being displayed so openly on his face.

“Now that is all done, lets show you some of those other neat features I was talking about,” Krieg said as he stood up. “You can see all of the padding on seating behind you there,” he continued. “Again, when it becomes rough out there, you will be very happy for that extra cushioning. The pole that is anchored to the floor there beside you, trust me you will appreciate it’s presence and the fact that it doesn’t move when everything else inside this cabin is that isn’t nailed down.”

Lucas stared back at Ben with a greenish look, hoping he never had to experience that. He had been fortunate so far on the trips he had taken on a launch and had been lucky enough to avoid feeling nauseous. Unpredictable situations like the one that Krieg was describing made him swallow nervously, and doubt that his stomach would cope very well.

“Up the top on both sides of the passenger cabin, you can see the over-head storage compartments. Some of them are too small to be useful in my opinion,” he demonstrated, by opening the door on one. “The doors have magnetic seals and are designed to stay closed when it gets rough, but there have been times where that has failed…..”

Krieg left the statement unfinished, assuming that the teenager would be able to make up his own conclusion about the results of that happening. “Absolutely everywhere….” he finally said, seeing the answer of where the contents would end up.

Lucas opened one of the larger compartments and saw a box inside labelled, ‘First-Aid Kit’, a fairly standard accompaniment one would assume for any kind of water craft. He opened a second door to the left where a small orange plastic container was marked with the words, ‘Food Rations’ and a whole list of instructions on the outside of how to prepare them. According to the size of the box, he couldn’t imagine anything in there being worthwhile eating.

“Dehydrated and supposed to last for centuries and keep you alive, so the manual tells people,” Ben exaggerated with a chuckle when he glanced over the boy’s shoulder and saw the label. “I have never tried them myself, and don’t ever want to.”

“That makes two of us,” Lucas agreed, closing the door. “Is there anything of any real use in any of these compartments.

“There are storage tanks under one side of the bench seat there for fresh water,” Krieg answered. “Life-jackets and other personal safety equipment beneath the other end. Underneath one of the floor panels there is also an inflatable survival raft. There is a ton of boring stuff that you probably could already guess about. Anything else isn’t worth mentioning. I am sure there will be plenty of other opportunities for you to poke around in here.”

“You want to hear the real scary numbers about these launches?” Ben asked, seeing Lucas look back at his ominous tone of voice. The teenager stopped looking through the compartment he had opened, and nodded his head cautiously.

“These sea launches are put through some rigorous testing, and are operated to depths of more than ten thousand feet,” Krieg stated. “Take that in for a minute. And then imagine the amount of space that you and I are standing in now. The exterior total length, including the cockpit, passenger module and all other areas add up to sixty-six feet. Life-support is supposed to be viable for twenty-five people for up to ten days.”

“Ten days!” Lucas said incredulously, looking around at the restrictive size of the cabin. “I don’t think it would fit more than ten people in here, once you account for luggage or any supplies as well,” he gauged. “I have been on one of these twice, and there was barely any standing room on both trips with.” He was impressed with the man’s expansive knowledge and statistics about the vessel.

“Can’t say I want to be in one that long, even with full power, but that is what they are designed for. At the Academy, one of the mandatory exercises for assessment was being capable in getting out of one of these launches in an emergency and being required to know how to deploy the raft,” Ben explained. “I agree with you on the number of people. Thankfully there will only be three of you tomorrow.”

“I take it that you were successful when it was your turn at the Academy to demonstrate your competency?” Lucas questioned, closing the door on the compartment.

Ben had wry smile on his face as he tried to find the right words, “A piece of cake, once you know how. Although ‘Commander Had-To-Tell-Me-Twenty-Times’ was not entirely happy with my performance, and made it a point to tell everybody out loud. There were some people at that place who never seemed satisfied with my efforts. My record speaks for itself, that I am a highly trained launch operator. I completed the course and have an excellent knowledge of how to pilot one, have kept passengers safe during any journey, and cargo has reached the intended destination without any problems.”

Lucas laughed at Ben’s description, “I am sure that someone will tell me the real story in the future. Before that, tell me about some of these other neat features you keep hinting at.”

The teenager used his eyes to follow the network of pipes that ran parallel throughout the cabin and ceiling of the craft. A number of various control panels could be identified, but then a few that had him guessing at their intended purpose. There were a whole lot of electronic panels that he would have liked to look behind and check out further for curiosity sake, but he erred on the side of caution.

Ben was pleased to see the kid taking everything in that was being shown to him and being spoken about. The kid’s face and body posture were showing early signs of fatigue. Planning to keep his attention only a little longer, and then encourage Lucas to join him in the mess hall for some food, he answered with one of his own.

“Look directly above your head towards the cockpit and tell me what you see?” Krieg asked, waiting to see if the boy was perceptive enough to pick up on a new security measure. “Next time you travel via one of these, be aware that everything you do and say is being recorded by the powers that be.”

Lucas heard the challenge, and glanced about the area in question. He was about to give up when he spotted something he immediately recognized, “A security camera,” he declared, the glass lens blinking directly back at him. He had definitely seen one of those on more than one occasion.

The teenager watched as Krieg opened a secret compartment, ready to explain more about it. It was Ben who was amazed when Lucas was able to identify the type of camera, right down to the exact model and specifications. The kid never stop surprising him with his intelligence or knowledge about subjects that someone his age shouldn’t know so much about.

“Well, they spared no expense when these were installed,” Lucas reported, clearly impressed with the array of equipment that he could see at first glance. “These cameras are wired, and usually are more trickier to install to begin with. Once that is done, they can become very useful and ultra reliable. They are also good for domestic use inside a house too, or put into places where the camera itself doesn’t need to move around a lot. With that kind of set up, a home owner can keep constant surveillance on multiple parts of their properties at the same time. This one is fairly obvious to spot, but there are models on the market that are even smaller, and much more advanced and can be concealed and well hidden.”

“I don’t know why I was planning on telling you all about them,” Krieg said. “The U.E.O. only installed them during the last eighteen months because a lot of supplies was going missing and couldn’t be accounted for. I guess they figured that they couldn’t trust any of us any more. It begins recording as soon as the launch engine starts up and does so continuously; the footage is downloaded to a server on SeaQuest. Then it can then be made downloadable to a computer anywhere else someone wants to send it. How come you know so much about them? ”

Lucas was poking his fingers into where the hardware and cabling was, trying to get a better look at the set up, but withdrew them, and replaced the panel. He was startled by the question for a minute, but saw no reason to be anything but truthful. “Oh, well I honestly don’t claim to know that much, but I have this best friend who has shown me a lot about cameras.”

“A friend?” Ben prompted, inwardly hoping that this ‘friend’ was one of the two that Bridger had secretly found out about and was about to be named.

“His real name is Nick,” Lucas replied, but too distracted by how well hidden it was. “Cameras mean as much to him, as computers and technology do for me. All kinds, big and small, new and old. He does play around with computers too, but photography is where his real passion and expertise lie. Wolfy has taught me a lot about them and owns a lot of them,” he added, without realising the mistake he was making.

Krieg made a mental note for later about the friend’s name and was silently grinning to himself. So far, he was one up on everybody else in that department. For a moment or two, he weighed up the pros and cons of whether he should be giving Lucas a peek at something else entirely. He wasn’t deliberately seeking to break the rules, but he knew the teenager would be fascinated.

Opening up a medium sized compartment behind Lucas’ head, “That security camera may be stationary, but these are not,” Krieg said, pulling out a small rectangular device.

“These portable body-cameras were added only six months go, but I am sure you will agree, they are much more sophisticated. They are an optional extra that some crew members can use at any time when they leave the launch, but feel the need to record their surroundings, or whenever they find themselves in questionable or unsafe areas. There are usually three kept on each launch at any one time.”

“They are usually reserved for use by military personnel only, and the brass is fairly stringent when it comes to who is taught how to use one. I suspect that people from the science contingent are not even advised that they exist unless it becomes absolutely necessary or in the case of an emergency. I am showing them to you, but let’s keep that information a secret between you and me. The Captain and Ford don’t need to be told about everything that you got to see this afternoon.”

From the words of warning, Lucas could tell that Ben was flouting with what was and wasn’t permitted by allowing him to see some things being revealed . He didn’t want his friend to get into any real trouble, and felt a little guilty as he nodded his head in agreement. There was definitely a level of unspoken appreciation as a result of Ben’s trust. No-one else had been prepared to treat him like that since coming on-board; like an adult who was capable of keeping his mouth shut when required.

Ben handed one of them to Lucas, who was even more impressed with this body-worn camera than the one installed above his head. “Colloquially known as Body Worn Cameras or B.W.V. for short. I am sure they are given or referred to by other common vernaculars too. These are extremely cool!” he remarked, with animation coming into his voice, as he turned the small black, rectangular object over in his hands. “The U.E.O. must have the right connections and spent a lot of money, as these are top of the line. Concealable, high-tech and very functional, and able to record continually for hours, whether the wearer is standing in one place, or moving around in the field. I have known them to be used by some foreign government officials, and heard rumours of them being used by unscrupulous business people who like to spy on their competition without them knowing about it.”

‘Now, how would someone like you know those kind of details?’ Krieg silently asked himself with genuine intrigue. He doubted that even having a friend with a passion for photography and electronics would have taught the teenager those kind of secrets. This sort of knowledge went way beyond being intelligent or smart, and it was never more clearer how much that they had been seriously underestimating Lucas. Circles one wouldn’t normally find anybody outside the military travelling within, unless they had top-notch security clearance. ‘Foreign governments and spies? How much could Lucas possibly know at fourteen years of age?’

“There were older versions, but they didn’t record as well and had a limited memory capacity. Often they would stop working as soon as the user too a step outside of the launch, or the image that was too distorted to be of use in sending back vital intel,” Krieg explained. “These do have a much wider reception and the sound recording on them is fairly good compared to those older models. There have been a lot of advances in the last twelve months. I haven’t had the opportunity to use one of them myself. He had started this tour thinking that he would be the one doing all of the talking and teaching, but the tables had certainly been turned when it came to both types of cameras.”

“This model comes with both audio and visual capabilities, which isn’t always the case. Some less expensive ones only come with visual, and the operational distance is limited,” Lucas continued to elaborate, as he inspected the camera at the same time. “These are definitely state-of-the-art, and although I haven’t used one of them personally either, my friend has talked about these endlessly when they were being developed. They are designed for a myriad of purposes in mind; everything from commercial enterprise to aiding law enforcement officers, and of course, enhance the objectives for the military in close encounter in both friendly and hostile situations. Nick always wanted to get his hands on one to pull it apart and see the workings inside for himself, but could never afford the price tag.”

Krieg had been leaning against the door arch of the cockpit, but now glanced down watch and noted the amount of time that had passed.

“Well, I think that about wraps up the tour for today, and includes the stuff that you shouldn’t know about. A timely reminder to keep still until the sea launch makes a complete stop, and keep all arms, legs and any other additional or protruding body parts inside the cabin until we reach the docking bay. Please listen to your launch pilot at all times, and don’t forget to tip them generously as you are leaving because they desperately need the money.”

“We are already in the docking bay, Krieg,” Lucas pointed out, laughing at the man’s comical antics and comments. “And the launch never moved the entire time.”

“There is always one unsatisfied passenger who wants to cause trouble,” Ben joked, as the two exited the vessel. “Any last minute personal luggage can wait until the morning.”

“What is on the agenda now?” the teenager asked, noting that the day was coming to a close. “Thanks for the tour, and I mean ‘all of it’” he added, glad that Krieg had added his own personal flavour to showing him around. From anybody else, it would have been a completely different story, and a whole lot less to see.

“How about you and I go get something to eat,” Krieg suggested. “Then afterwards, we can start pouring over those charts of the Florida Keys that I mentioned earlier, and try to work out where you are headed tomorrow?”

“Sure, I can join you in the mess hall, but I am not very hungry right now,” Lucas admitted. “I don’t want a full meal tonight. A drink and something light and not so heavy on my stomach.”

Ben listened, and wondered about the cause behind the lack of appetite. Something involving his father, and part of what he was already dealing with? Another reason concerning the impending departure tomorrow morning that the teenager wasn’t forthcoming about? Lucas didn’t appear to be masking any unresolved emotions right at this particular moment. Maybe he was becoming better at disguising his fear and anxiety from those who were still learning what signs to look out for.

______________________________________________________________________________

Entering the mess hall for dinner, Ben thought that the teenager would have baulked more at the number of crew in the room and the noise level. Lucas didn’t say anything, but this was certainly somewhere he wanted to be right now. Both of them grabbed a tray and joined the end of the line in front of the service tables.

The head chef Don was present and could see Lucas wanting to change his mind about staying, and doing so only because Krieg was standing alongside of him. As they edged closer to being able to make a selection, he waited until they were the last two people to drum up some casual conversation.

“Captain Bridger tells me there is an exciting trip planned for tomorrow, Lucas?”

The teenager selected one of the containers of dessert on offer, “A few days away with him and Doctor Westphalen. I cannot confirm the exciting part yet, but hopefully some different scenery.”

“Are you at least taking him with you out of my hair?” Don joked, pointing a thumb in Krieg’s direction.

Lucas had to suppress the bubble of laughter at the resulting scoffed expression on Ben’s face, “I tried to talk the Captain around, Don, I really did. To help you out.”

“Now wait a darn minute……….” Ben started to object in the most strenuous of terms.

“Thank you for at least trying,” Don answered with a cheeky wink. “I guess the rest of the crew here will be stuck with him like normal until you all return.”

“The Captain did finally agree to let him off here after a few days and stay elsewhere overnight,” the teenager offered, continuing the charade. He knew if he looked at Ben’s indignant expression, then he would not have been able to keep a straight face. “Sorry, that is the best I could come up with at such short notice.”

“I won’t forget, Lucas,” Don declared, shaking the kids hand in mock appreciation. “Anything you want in return, you name it.”

“Name it? Stuck with me?” Krieg challenged, willing to take the knocks on the chin. He was getting a kick out of the teenager joining in with the chef, even if it was at his expense. “Mark my words, I won’t forget either of you!” he declared, adding to his tray before turning away and walking to a vacant table.

“I had better follow him before he explodes,” Lucas responded with a chuckle. Their taunting of Ben had helped the time go a little faster. The chatter echoing in the room lessening considerably, and the seated crowd thinning out.

Don looked at Lucas’ tray and saw that it still only had one dessert and a cold drink. “Not having anything else for dinner?” feeling obliged to say something, but still let the teenager be in charge of his own choices.

“I decided to do everything in reverse this time around, which is why I chose a dessert,” Lucas answered. “Don’t worry, this is plenty and will tide me over until morning.”

“Remember to fill me in with everything that happens once you get back,” Don prompted as he watched the teenager turn away and walk towards Krieg. They had taken a slide back in encouraging him about food today, but maybe that was going to happen from time to time. The head chef thought they had climbed up that hill a little more, but guessed that set backs were bound to occur.

______________________________________________________________________________

When Lucas sat down across the table from him, Ben had some of the same thoughts and concerns running through his head as he saw how light Lucas’ tray was. He decided that there needed to be a different approach to the problem, and now wasn’t the time to keep beating the subject in the same way.

On the eve before the trio was due to leave, there wasn’t going to be an opportunity to think of a workable solution. No doubt Bridger and Kristin would do their best as a team on the island. When they came back after that few day’s break, and if things had not improved, maybe it was time to talk together and come up with new strategies of encouragement.

The teenager was satisfied with the amount and choice of food he had made, judging that he would be able to argue that very point if Doctor Westphalen pressed him about whether he had eaten food or not. Krieg was pleased to note that he wasn’t displaying the same hesitation or nervousness from earlier in the day, when they were talking in the same room. Tiredness was becoming more noticeable, but it didn’t feel right for him to be telling the kid to get some sleep.

Lucas could see the wheels of thought turning around in Ben’s mind, and if he thought about it hard enough, he was sure what the topics would be. For now though, he didn’t want to do that, and swallowed any comments on the tip of his tongue, along with his soda.

Ben consumed his own meal, keeping the conversation between them about the trip and what activities the Captain may have devised. Whilst Lucas delivered the used trays to Don in the kitchen, Krieg left for a few brief moments to grab the oceanographic charts that he had hinted at earlier.

When he returned, Ben had in his hands a portable tablet device, and a series of paper charts rolled up and tucked up under one arm. Lucas rescued the paper charts before they fell to the floor and started to spread them across the table.

Ben began looking through them and arranging them according to the information he was looking for, and hoping to show Lucas. Whilst he was doing that, Lucas picked up the tablet and switched it on, thinking that it had to be a more up-to-date method.

“Wouldn’t this be quicker?” the teenager asked, as the display opened up. “How do you even decipher and read what is on the screen?”

“Oh ye, young apprentice,” Krieg replied with a grin. “The information provided on the tablet would certainly be more recent. Tonight, I am thinking like Bridger. He is old school, and seasoned naval guys from his generation, take advantage of these older nautical maps.”

“Yeah, I guess he would,” Lucas agreed, thinking about what little he knew about the Captain’s background. He did seem to like to do things in a particular way, and going by some of the objects that he kept on display in his quarters, that was a logical assumption for Ben to make.

“There are a couple of different types here to look over. Each one represents is a graphical representation of something different, and together or individually, they can be a very useful tool,” Ben explained with patience. “Each chart has a prescribed scale at the bottom. Topographical maps are going to give you details about the depth of water and the height of any surrounding bits of land.”

“They will also show natural landmarks and features of the seabed or sea-floor, the coastline so that any hazards can be navigated around. Information on tides and the deep ocean currents, all essential resources for successful marine navigation. With the tablet in your hand, you can only see a portion of any one map at a time. The ability to zoom in and out as necessary does have its advantages. However, with these charts laid out like this, there is much more to see overall.”

“So much to learn about these that I would never have suspected before,” Lucas remarked, drinking in every detail and listening intently. “Where do you think we are headed tomorrow? I don’t really mind it being a mystery and not knowing. I guess Bridger will show Kristin and I soon enough tomorrow morning when we set out.”

“Using all the skills that I have, I believe we need to take into account areas like this………………,” Krieg started to circle. “This whole area is the Florida Keys, where SeaQuest is currently headed. Over here, the Naval Base at Key West is located,” Ben described, using the tip of a finger to follow the features on the map.

With both of them looking down at the surface of the table, neither of them heard or saw someone enter the mess hall. Bridger had eaten a quick snack dinner himself an hour earlier, and had only come in to get a hot cup of coffee. He saw the two friends seated at the table, and pouring over something of interest. He decided to find out what they were so curious about.

“Having fun gentlemen?” came his voice from behind, startling them both.

“Whoa!, Sir!” Krieg yelled out in total surprise. “Talk about sneaking up on people.”

“Captain…….,” Lucas admonished, feeling the man’s hand touch his good shoulder in friendship. He couldn’t deny that he had jumped nearly as high as Ben in fright.

“Sneaking? I came in here to get a coffee,” Bridger said in his own defence, but he had a lingering grin on his face at being able to catch out the Morale Officer when he least expected it. “My job description calls for keeping personnel on their toes at all times, Lieutenant.” He was pleased to see that Lucas wasn’t upset and had quickly brushed aside any embarrassment.

Bridger looked over the top of their heads, and down at the various nautical charts and had a good sense of what they were trying to achieve. The smirk on his face returned, knowing that he still had the upper hand in that respect too. “Looking over those maps won’t do either of you any good, but you certainly get marks for trying, Ben.”

“Oh, come on, Captain, you have to give us a hint, Sir!” Ben pleaded.

“There are a still a couple of small jobs to complete before I retire for the night,” Bridger said, redirecting the conversation. “Everything packed in the launch as requested?”

“Yes, Sir, everything except personal belongings, which won’t take much time tomorrow morning,” Ben answered dutifully.

“How about you, Lucas?”

“Ah, yeah, all done,” the teenager offered, not wanting to admit to their being no packing to speak of. “I am about to head back to my cabin now anyway. Ben, do you need a hand to pack these up?”

“Nah, I have it covered,” Ben answered. “Thanks for your help this afternoon,” he added.

“I was planning on calling by your cabin last, Lucas, if you are going to be there,” Bridger gauged. He had picked up on the same level of fatigue as Ben, and hoping that work wasn’t on the teenager’s agenda tonight.

Lucas stood up from the table. “Yeah, I will be there. I am not planning on doing too much for the next few hours except wind down. Catch you both later.”

Both Krieg and Bridger were pleased to hear that statement and watched as the teenager left the mess hall.

“Let’s hope that is truly the case,” Bridger commented. “Tomorrow morning, there are a few last minute jobs and instructions that I will give to specific crew members before we embark on this journey.”

“I will go and retrieve that cap for you now, Sir, and drop it off to you. I got a little side-tracked this afternoon with loading the launch.”

“How did the tour go?” Nathan asked. He had been waiting to see if Lucas was going to tell him about it.

“Very well, Sir, he seemed genuinely interested in learning and even taught me a thing or three, which I was totally unprepared for. I left showing him the controls of the cockpit for you tomorrow, thinking that you would enjoy that task yourself,” Krieg replied.

Ben was right about the controls, Nathan was looking forward to being able to spend some time with Lucas and explain about the different controls of the launch as they travelled. Something that the two of them could do together. Nevertheless there was something missing from his brief and concise answer that said a whole lot more.

“A problem I should know about?” he asked. In the back of his mind, Bridger was wondering what Lucas managed to teach Ben within the short space of a few hours.

Ben looked back at the Captain for a minute, wondering how he figured it out, but smiled, rocking back on his heels and glad that he didn’t have to say it out loud. The man’s intuitiveness when it came to Lucas certainly could not be underestimated.

“There isn’t much to tell you, Sir. You know I would, if I thought that I should be. Lucas was great company this afternoon, and was playing along, talking pleasantly. He would answer a question when asked, participated in everything that I was doing. Even coming in here, there was a moment of hesitation, but that smoothed out, and he and Don were making jokes at my expense.”

“And…….?” Bridger said. He was nodding his head at everything he was hearing, and could have put the possible cause down to residual mixed feelings from their earlier discussion in his quarters.

“He is tired, and needs sleep yes, but that is not it. Lucas says he is looking forward to going on this trip, and I believe him,” Ben reported. “But something was off, and I haven’t been able to quite put my finger on what,” he said, thinking along a different route.

“Thank you, I do appreciate your honesty. I will be making going by his cabin my last point of call for the night. I am hoping he may have fallen asleep by then.”

______________________________________________________________________________

Bridger went back to his own quarters momentarily, whilst Krieg was searching through boxes in his storage area.

Nathan was planning on making contact with the person he was arranging to pick up and escort the invited crew members to his private island. When he reached his quarters, he had a change of heart, wanting to keep the mystery for as long as possible.

He would have the ability to contact them once he reached his island, and not have those crew members know before they were greeted at Key West on the fourth morning. By that time, it wouldn’t matter so much if Lucas or Kristin found out who the person was. Although Bridger was hoping to keep the identity from them too until they were introduced face to face.

He would leave details in a sealed envelope he intended to hand to Ford before departure in the morning, in case he was unsuccessful in being able to reach them. Nathan was looking forward to this reunion as well, knowing that he was the one who was the one responsible for maintaining the distance and keeping the silence between them. They had tried to reach out, more than once or twice, and had the door firmly slammed shut in their face. Time had changed his outlook after Carol’s death, but it hadn’t always been that way. Sometimes he was too stubborn for this own good.

As he was securing his door, Ben Krieg was approaching his quarters, with the item he had requested in hand.

“I located a brand new one that will suit your purpose nicely, Sir,” Ben commented, a huge grin on his face, as he handed over the brand new box. “The sizing should be correct, but let me know if it is not.”

A part of him wanted to be there when it was presented, and see the look on the teenager’s face. But he also recognized it as a chance for Lucas and the Captain to make more of a connection between the two of them. “Let me know how it turns out. I am sure you have nothing to worry about, Sir, and it will be a well received surprise.”

“Thank you, I hope you are right,” Bridger answered simply. “I really appreciated all your efforts today with Lucas and the supplies.” There were quite a few words he could of said in gratitude, but they seemed inadequate and the meaning behind them would be have been lost.

Running his hand over the outside of the box, there were a lot of thoughts running through his head. About the contents, the impending trip and more. All of which he could assume that Ben could safely give a list of, but respected his judgement enough about when it came to Lucas.

______________________________________________________________________________

After leaving the mess hall, Lucas didn’t have any plans as he had told Bridger and Ben. As he walked by the moon pool, Darwin came swimming up to the edge of the tank, and the teenager couldn’t resist stopping to spend some time with him.

As he glanced about the immediate area, the boy noticed that is was nice and quiet at this time of the evening. There were no scientific staff from Kristin’s department at any of the benches or computers. The area was devoid of any military personnel too, which was just as uncommon. Normally the moon pool deck was a hive of activity and with people coming and going as they went about their duties.

Lucas was grateful for the solitude. If there had been other people present when he was walking past, he probably would have given a quick hello to his dolphin friend and kept going. With nobody about or watching on, he was content to stay a little longer.

“Hey, Darwin,” Lucas greeted the mammal, leaning on the edge of the pool and reaching in and rubbing his hands gently over the smooth, sensitive head. He knew that he would be able to spend time with the dolphin during their break, but not being able to swim in the water with him both here and there was depressing. There was only so much interaction to be had between them while petting and talking through the vocorder.

The vocorder control was in the designated bracket on the wall on the other side of the tank, but the teenager didn’t bother to retrieve it. The control would transmit any speech that came through easily enough.

“Are you ready for the big adventure tomorrow?” Lucas asked. He had no qualms about how odd it sounded or looked to anybody that he was talking openly to an animal. A better friendship than most of the human ones he had ever known.

The dolphin raised it’s head out of the water, splashing the teenager as it opened his beak, “Darwin go with Bridger.” It sounded as if he was happy to be going.

Lucas wanted to reply openly that he was happy to be going to, but that was only partly true. With the time to departure growing shorter, and looming in the back of his mind, his fears about his father had been quickly gathering strength over the past several hours. It had been gnawing away at him even when he and Ben were pouring over the nautical maps in the mess hall. Hopefully Ben had been too distracted in showing him the various charts to take enough notice in his efforts to quell the anxiety knotting up his insides.

“Yeah, me too. I bet you are looking forward to going home for a few days. At least you will have more freedom than the tanks on-board and the aqua tubes. You will be able to swim in the shallow warm waters. SeaQuest is usually down at depths where the surrounding environment is darker for you, and the temperature of the water much colder.”

The thoughts rattling around in Lucas’ mind started to become darker too. With the mention of the word ‘home’ he wondered if he would ever find a place for himself. So far in life, such a thing had only been a fleeting wish and wanting everything that it offered. Somewhere that offered a different kind of protection and safety and not only from the weather. Knowing what it felt like to have one and that indescribable moment of pride in belonging somewhere. Surely such a feeling could only be part of a dream.

Lucas was brought back from his far-away thoughts, when he was hit with a sudden jet of water from the dolphin to his face. He clearly hadn’t been paying attention, and Darwin was letting him know it.

“Sorry, I drifted away there for a minute.”

Darwin go home.”

“Yes, Darwin will be going home tomorrow,” the teenager said with a smile. “I haven’t seen this mystery place yet. You and the Captain can show me around when we get there, huh?”

Lucas go home too.”

The dolphin didn’t see the smile drop away from Lucas’ face with that electronic chirp.

“I don’t have a home yet, Darwin,” he answered, trying to push down the swell of emotion that had been evoked by his own words. “And maybe not any time soon,” the boy told himself silently.

The mammal wasn’t to be deterred though, “Darwin’s home, Lucas home now.”

Lucas was taken back by the dolphin’s off-hand comment. “You really think so?” speaking with a heavy helping of scepticism. “You get to choose where you want to live and come and go as your please. There on the island, in the open ocean, or here on SeaQuest. But it is not as easy as that for me no matter where I am.”

One of the security personnel assigned to the evening shift walked into the moon pool area, breaking up any further talk between the boy and dolphin. Lucas didn’t want any anonymous and well-intended report to reach the Captain about him having second thoughts about leaving the sanctuary that Bridger had created for him.

Heading back to his cabin as Darwin swam out of the moon pool tank, he couldn’t shake the anxiety that had been renewed earlier in the day, and a constant companion all afternoon. Some intense gaming might help him deal with any pent up negativity or thoughts about his father and get rid of them before their departure in the morning.

The Captain kept promising that he was safe whilst on-board, but all of that was about to change. What was going to be his father’s next move?

______________________________________________________________________________

Lucas got about twenty minutes into playing his game when he heard a knock behind him on the hatch door. The movement of the game controller suddenly stopped in his hand, and he contemplated whether he really wanted to answer it at all. The more he thought about his father and leaving tomorrow, the tighter his grip became on the handle, and the more erratic and unfocused his playing became. He was no longer hitting any target on the screen and his efforts of strategy diminished substantially.

He resumed using the handle of the joystick again, “Come in,” he called out, but didn’t turn around to face his visitor. There was noticeable tension across his shoulders, and he was sitting very rigid against the back of the chair.

Bridger casually stepped into the small cabin after hearing the invitation to enter, holding onto the box that he had taken from Krieg a short time ago.

Standing inside the doorway, the Captain took stock of the boy’s stiff posture and closed off body language. At first he thought the teenager was upset at the game he was playing, and suspected that he was losing whatever battle he was involved with. There were other obvious signs that indicated that Lucas was using what was on the screen as a distraction from what was really bothering him.

“Are you going to turn around and face me?” Bridger scolded lightly, wanting to make this visit a positive one. Maybe this was one of those times where teenager’s got perturbed by interruptions to their on-line screen time.

Lucas placed the controller on the table in front of him and swivelled around in the chair to face the owner of the voice speaking to him.

“I am sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude,” he apologized, running his hands through his tangled blond hair, and blowing out a large lungful of air as he tried to get his thoughts and feelings under control. He stood up, looking at Bridger and trying to find a grin, but was clearly struggling.

Bridger decided it was going to be up to him to break the ice and start a conversation between them, “I thought you might getting some sleep before tomorrow.”

“You would think so,” Lucas said, some of the tension leaving his face, but quickly replaced with a self depreciating smirk that wasn’t hiding anything.

“Talk to me,” Bridger stated plainly, setting the box aside on top of the bunk bed. Lucas’ eyes glanced sideways at the box for a moment, and his expression changed briefly to one of curiosity, before coming back and settling squarely on the Captain. He knew he needed to ask this question, but he was finding it difficult to get the words out.

“Please tell me that nobody will know where to find us?” he whispered, swallowing the lump lodged in his throat. The desperation showing in his eyes for the need of such reassurance was palpable. He needed Bridger to understand why he was asking.

Bridger could see the internal war raging within and knew that the teenager was hanging on for his answer. And he knew exactly which ‘nobody’ was being referred to without mentioning names. Now he knew why the boy had been hesitant and slow to turn around to face him when he first came into the cabin.

Nathan took half a step closer to the teenager, reaching out and running a supportive hand down his upper left arm as he spoke, “I promise you that only a few select people I completely trust will be told where we are. My friend who will be bringing the other crew members to us later in the week, has kept the location of my place secret for a long time until now. You don’t need to worry about him.

“Thanks,” Lucas whispered softly, feeling guilty and embarrassed that he had to ask the question at all. When he looked back up at the Captain, there was no judgement at all on his face. The fear and anxiety were still present, but the Captain’s promise allowed him to take a breath again rather than have him feeling that he was holding one in endlessly.

“Playing a game tonight were you?” Bridger brought up, changing the subject, but inwardly kicking himself and knowing he was sounding like an idiot. He had clearly been able to see what the boy was doing when he entered.

Lucas was appreciative of the man’s efforts to talk about anything but what was currently weighing heavily on his mind.

“Yes, to relax like I told you earlier,” he answered, without admitting his fear stopping him from attempting sleep yet, and suspecting his explanation didn’t really hold water. From the furious pace of the play Bridger had witnessed first hand, he doubted that it would help anyone relax.

Lucas’ gaze was drawn back to the box sitting on his top bunk, “What did you bring?”

“Oh, just a little something that you should have already been given when you first came on-board,” Bridger replied with a smile. “All crew members are supposed to have one provided as part of their official SeaQuest uniform. Some personnel consider wearing them as a little more optional until they are reminded otherwise by Commander Ford or Hitchcock. A little oversight on my part that you were overlooked at receiving one. Open it up, it is for you.”

Lucas’ expression switched to one of suspicion as his brain started going off in one particular tangent about what he could be receiving.

If the Captain thought he was going to putting on one of those black jumpsuits, or even one of the blue ones from Kristin’s scientific department, then he was going to be sorely disappointed. The teenager didn’t want to appear ungrateful, but he wasn’t looking to dress in any kind of uniform at any time. Some people needed one for their occupation, or to demonstrate that they belonged to a specific organisation like nursing staff at hospitals, students that went to private schools and the military.

Although he didn’t have much of a wardrobe to speak of, conforming and being requested to wear any items of clothing because everybody else expected you to, totally went against his individual personality, belief system and sense of style. He respected the people on SeaQuest who were required to do so and they did look smart, but they weren’t for Lucas Wolenczak.

The teenager picked up the box, surprised by the lightness of the contents. Whatever was inside certainly didn’t weigh anything at all, so perhaps he had jumped to the wrong conclusion. He started to lift the lid, but looked back at Bridger, seeking permission to do so. He had picked up on the words ‘wearing’ and ‘uniform’ and was puzzled as to what could be inside and how he fitted into this whole equation.

“Yes, open it up,” Bridger repeated. “I want you to have it. It won’t bite you,” he encouraged, remembering Krieg’s report of how the boy had reacted at the acceptance of something considered a gift.

Lucas gave a partial lopsided grin at the Captain’s comment, but any words on the tip of his tongue fell away as he lifted out a black baseball cap. Turning it over in his hands and facing the visor towards himself, the cobalt blue triangle with white edging in the background and the gold embroidery of ‘SeaQuest DSV’ and the hammerhead shark emblazoned and layered proudly over the top.

“T-this is for me?” he finally managed to get out. He gently ran the tip of his index finger over the raised thread symbol and lettered patch.

“Yes, this one is for you,” Bridger said, seeing the emotions swirl around and knowing that being given a simple gift was having a profound and overwhelming impact on the teenager. “I already have one, and this one is a size or two small in diameter.”

The teenager took half a step forward and gave Nathan a brief and awkward embrace, “Thank you,” he whispered, unable to think of anything even remotely adequate to describe his current frame of mind. Lucas didn’t know how appropriate it was to give the newly appointed commanding officer of a military submarine a hug.

Bridger was taken aback by the spontaneous display of gratitude, “You are most welcome,” he said, giving a light chuckle, only too pleased to respond to the gesture and add a gentle squeeze to his left shoulder for good measure. The boy needed someone to be willingly spend quality time with him, without any conditions, strings or expectations wanted in return.

Nathan recalled Ben’s remarks about affection being foreign and unfamiliar to him and actively avoiding most forms of physical contact. He could guess at the amount of courage it had taken for someone this shy to push themselves outside of their comfort zone. The two of them being the only ones inside the cabin probably played a major factor. Lucas was someone who had been missing out on a lot of basic positive human interaction for far too long. He may be living on SeaQuest through no choice of his own, but he wanted to feel included.

“I gave it to you now, hoping you would put it in your bag to take with you tomorrow,” the Captain told him. “The afternoon sun on the island can get a little hot this time of year, so you are going to need something to protect your head from the heat. You are welcome to leave it here until we return it you prefer.”

“No, I want to take it with me,” Lucas affirmed, placing the cap back inside the box temporarily and setting it off to the side. Taking the box seemed unnecessary, and he didn’t want to remove the cap from the box and leave it inside his small bag overnight.

“I saw you wearing a pair of sunglasses on the launch you and I shared the first time. Bringing them along might be a good idea too,” Bridger stated. He didn’t recall seeing the teenager sporting them when he and Ben came across him asleep on the second launch.

“Oh, well I did have some like you saw,” Lucas replied, his heart sinking at having to derive a false explanation for their absence. “They must be at home somewhere. I didn’t have them with me when I came back.”

The Captain readily accepted the reason, but saw the slight dip of his facial expression and knew that there was more to the story that the boy didn’t want to reveal.

Lucas didn’t want to tell Bridger that the pair they were talking about were at home, like he said. However, now they were in pieces in a garbage bag somewhere, thanks to his father’s efforts. Before he had the chance of giving an explanation for his lateness, and before his impending punishment had been carried out. During his most recent visit home, he had entered the man’s office and the thin frames had been ripped off the front of his shirt. Unfortunately they became a casualty of his father’s boot, the dark lenses shattered beyond recognition.

The teenager knew he didn’t need to remind Bridger what else had fallen victim to the man’s unbridled fury and stomped on that night. The sunglasses in question had been a spare pair from his friend Nick, who had given them to him when he upgraded to new ones. It would be a while before he would have sufficient funds to be able to afford to buy another set of his own.

Down at his feet, Nathan spotted the small bag that he had seen a few times in Lucas’ possession, and suspected it would be what he was using as luggage tomorrow. It didn’t look much different now to when he and Kristin had found it with Cynthia Holt’s stash of medication inside. So much for his bold comment in the Ward Room about getting packed.

“Got everything together that you want to take?”

Lucas immediately looked down at the bag and realised that its outer appearance was a pitiful site. Scuffed and not holding a lot inside of it. “Yeah, the clothes are still in the bag, and I only have one pair of sneakers in the way of shoes, so I will be wearing those on my feet in the morning.”

The Captain nodded his head, but made a mental note to himself to talk to Ben Krieg in the morning about ordering the boy some more clothes and footwear, without making a fuss about it. If his father wasn’t going to provide what Lucas needed, then Nathan was perfectly willing for the U.E.O. or himself to step in and provide something. The tricky part was going to be getting Lucas to accept anything being purchased on his behalf. Even if it was something like clothes to wear. He had turned Krieg down outright when offering to order replacement snacks for his stash jars.

“All of my tasks are completed for now. I will see you in the morning. Tomorrow is going to be a great day,” Bridger proclaimed as he prepared to leave. “I am headed back to my own quarters and I know that Kristin was planning on getting a little more rest tonight. Please try and get some sleep if you can, I am about to do the same.”

“I will try,” Lucas promised, as he watched the Captain open the hatch door. “Thanks again for stopping by with the cap.”

Rubbing at his eyes after locking the door behind Bridger, the teenager was true to his word and was intending to try and sleep tonight. The computer game he was playing had logged him out due to inactivity and he had no desire to start it again.

Bridger’s talk and gift had lifted his spirits somewhat about tomorrow, and the bubbles of excitement about the island began to rise again. However, he couldn’t suppress entirely or deny the unsettled feelings that were set lower down in the pit of his stomach, and it had nothing to do with a lack of food.

______________________________________________________________________________

At three o’clock in the morning and Ben Krieg was silently cursing that he had to get up now, knowing that his alarm was set to go off in another couple of hours anyway.

Padding in bare feet down the corridor to the mess hall, his intention was to grab a cold bottle of water and take it back to his cabin.

At first, he thought that the room was in virtual darkness, except for a few security lights strategically placed around the room. He was relying on those to navigate his way to the fridge, and had grabbed what he came for. He was just about to walk out, when movement from the shadows caught his attention.

Looking into the pitch black room, the silhouette of a lone figure could be seen sitting at one of the tables. A voice spoke to him, “What are you doing in here this time of the night?”

Ben started walking towards the table and from the dull illumination emitted nearby, threw back a question of his own. “That should be my question to you, Lucas.”

Approaching the table, he could see that the teenager had a cup of coffee off to the left-hand side, and a deck of cards spread out on the surface of the table. Taking a closer look he could see the pattern, “Solitiare?”

“Yeah, it’s pretty much one of the few cards games you can play on your own,” the teenager answered. “Pull up a chair if you want,” he invited.

“Aren’t you supposed to be getting some sleep before you leave in a few hours?” Ben queried.

“I promised Bridger that I would try as he was leaving my cabin. And I can honestly say for a good part of two hours, I tried to live up to that. Everything went south about three hours ago, which is how long I have been sitting in here before you came.”

“You have been sitting in here in the dark all alone during that time playing cards?” Krieg asked, taking a look at the kids’ face and judging from himself that the problem about his sleeping pattern were still clearly evident.

“Nothing else to do much, when I didn’t feel like playing a computer game,” Lucas replied casually. “It wasn’t fair to wake anybody else up. You don’t need to keep me company either, I am sure you have a lot to do already today.”

‘The Captain wouldn’t see it like that, Lucas’ Ben thought to himself, getting the distinct impression that he was avoiding sleep again, just like he had reported.

“I came for the water, but it won’t be long before my alarm will be going off,” Ben countered. “If it was a better time of the day, I could be teaching you thing or three about cards.”

“Wow, you mean to tell me that I have caught the great Ben Krieg out at a time when he isn’t at his absolute best?” Lucas challenged with a daring and cheeky smirk.

After the initial shocked expression faded, the man’s own grin widened significantly at the open taunt from the teenager.

“Go turn up some of the lights in here and refill your coffee cup, Wolenczak, and let me show you how to shuffle the deck for a real game of cards,” Krieg ordered.

______________________________________________________________________________

By the time Bridger arrived in launch bay area, just after seven o’clock in the morning, Kristin was standing by a couple of large boxes. He was in time to see the back end of Ben Krieg enter the designated sea launch carrying another large box.

“Be careful with that one, Lieutenant, I don’t want the contents getting tossed about when it took so long for me to carefully pack everything separately,” Kristin called out.

“Good morning,” Nathan greeted the doctor, carrying a bag of his own containing his personal clothes and belongings. He was currently dressed in casual attire, and probably didn’t look that much different than the day Kristin had accused him of being a tourist.

“Good morning, Sir,” Ben greeted him, as he exited the smaller vessel. He had been planning to grab the next box for Doctor Westphalen, but changed his mind. “I will take custody of that for you, Captain, and see that it is safely stored on-board before your departure.”

Nathan relinquished his hold on the bag easily enough, but there was also a sealed envelope in his other hand that caught Ben’s attention.

“You still have several of my boxes to stow on-board, Mr Krieg, before you start offering your services to others,” Kristin pointed out to him good-naturedly. She had laughed out loud at the expression on his face when he had first seen the stack of boxes she insisted were necessary for four days.

“Don’t remind me, Doc,” Krieg answered with mock exaggeration. “One could do themselves a major back injury after loading the amount of luggage you are taking all on your own.”

Kristin and Nathan shared a small laugh together at the Morale Officer’s antics. But the doctor side of her noticed something else about him, wondering if the Captain had picked up on it yet. “Does Ben seem a little fatigued to you this morning than normal?”

“I haven’t been here long enough yet to take a good look at his appearance,” Nathan answered truthfully, but was concerned that Kristin had noted something about the man’s health. They were already dealing with one person who had a troubled sleeping pattern. He didn’t want it to become contagious on-board and spread to anyone else.

Before there could be any further discussion between them, Commander Jonathan Ford arrived, carrying his usual clip-board in hand. “Good morning, Captain, Doctor Westphalen.”

“Good Morning, Commander,” came the pleasant tone from Kristin.

“Good Morning, Jonathan, I see you are up bright and early like some of us,” the Captain greeted his second-in-command. “Can I safely assume that we are still on-course and the scenery outside should have begun to change dramatically since leaving the harbour last night?”

“Yes Sir, and Tim O’Neill and Miguel Ortiz are at this moment at their respective stations, ready to assist you as you leave the launch bay,” Ford reported. “The SeaQuest is continuing to cruise at an impressive speed, but as you would expect, the depth is very different to what we are used to at Pearl Harbour. We are navigating the current at two thousand feet. I estimate that we should reach our destination later this afternoon, a good hour ahead of schedule. As for the scenery outside, we are still a little deeper to see much of a difference yet, but I do suspect that will change before lunch time.”

“Thank you, Commander, that is pleasing to hear, and allows me to relax a little more, knowing that the helm and everybody on-board is in experienced hands,” Bridger commented. “Make sure you put the show on both main screens on the Bridge and throughout the other departments as possible. Although not everybody is coming on this short break, I want all of them to witness the spectacular gifts of nature that will be on display in this neck of the woods.”

Ben emerged from the launch to pick up the last of the boxes to be packed, “Be right with everyone, as soon as I get this last piece secured,” he said, seeing the small group mingling on the deck nearby.

“Did you see what I was talking about, Nathan?” Kristin asked.

“See what, Doctor Westphalen?” Ford questioned, knowing that he was coming in late to the conversation in relation to something about Krieg.

Before Kristin or the Captain could answer the Executive Officer, Ben came back out of the launch. Nathan decided he was going to address the problem right here and now, before he left, and that started with some honesty from the man himself.

“Lieutenant, I know you have been doing an exemplary job on getting all of the supplies we will need, and loading them, without much assistance,” Bridger began. “I hope you are still maintaining a healthy fitness routine and have been taking care of yourself as well? The reason I ask, is that the doctor suspects that you didn’t get a lot of sleep last night?”

Ford listened with intrigue as the Captain’s observations. Since the meeting in the Ward Room, he had been unable to find fault with his work ethic. He had tackled putting the supplies together and ensuring they were being loaded securely. At the same time, he had carried out his own duties without falling behind or slacking off. Like the Captain, he had not been in the launch bay long enough to notice the tiredness they were accusing the man of.

Ben hesitated for a minute, debating with himself whether or not he should be telling the Captain about his early morning activities in the mess hall with Lucas. Upon second thought, if he look tired after a few hours of lost sleep, then he could be certain that the teenager wouldn’t be able to disguise his own tiredness. Especially with Kristin. She was liable to be watching him like a hawk on this trip anyway, and reporting anything quickly enough back to Bridger.

So far he had maintained an honesty policy with the crew about Lucas on most occasions. It was probably better to give the Captain and Kristin a heads up that there was still a lot of work to do in that area.

“I am fine, Sir, thank you for asking, and you Doc, for pointing out the bags under my eyes,” he replied with a laugh at himself. “I did get some sleep, but woke up at about three o’clock, way before my morning alarm. I was only planning to be up long enough to get a bottle of water from the mess hall. But when I got there, I saw that I wasn’t the only one awake at that hour.”

“Lucas?” Bridger guessed with an audible sigh, knowing that the teenager had already admitted to being awake during the early morning hours, before last night.

“He wasn’t doing anything wrong, per sè, merely drinking a cup of coffee on his own, in the dark, playing solitaire with a deck of cards,” Ben informed the group. “I can only go by the estimation that Lucas gave me about how long he had been sitting there when it came up in our conversation. Three hours. But he did mention that he had made a promise to you, Sir, about trying to get some sleep, so I assume he had tried earlier. I didn’t want to leave him there alone at such an unreasonable hour, so I stayed to keep him company.”

“I am not happy to hear about him missing out on more sleep again. Nathan, we really do need to find a workable solution, preferably before this trip is over,” the Doctor said adamantly.

“I agree,” Nathan said in agreement, but wanting to hear the end of Ben’s take about their conjoined nocturnal activities.

“Neither of us went back to bed, but we parted ways about six a.m. this morning, when I came here to start getting organized, and he went back to his cabin. Don only came into the kitchen an hour earlier, but he was busy getting breakfast started for the crew.” Ben decided to omit the details about teaching him a few hands of a different game of cards.

“Did you see Lucas have any breakfast this morning, Mr Krieg?” Kristin asked, already suspecting the answer, given the account of what time he was awake. “Even if he isn’t sleeping, he really should have something in his stomach before we set of this morning. And during his critical years of growth, something more than coffee.”

“Thank you, Ben, I know you would have been looking out for him,” Bridger remarked. “Although I am not happy to hear about his sleeping either, I want to start this trip off on the right foot. With a positive mindset for all of us. I am hoping this time away will allow us to help him change some of these choices for the better.”

Reluctantly, Kristin knew that Nathan was right, and she didn’t want to start berating him over his sleeping and eating habits as soon as she saw him this morning. The two of them working together over the next four days would make a difference.

______________________________________________________________________________

“Speaking of positive things,” Ben said with a good deal of anticipation, “How did the surprise gift go over with him?”

“It went very well, Ben, and thanks again for your help,” Nathan gave in reply, a wide grin on his face, but he wasn’t going to elaborate on what went on between him and Lucas in his cabin.

Krieg was intrigued by the very happy vibes he was getting from the Captain, but he didn’t ask further. Like the card games, some details of what had gone on had been deliberately left out. “It was nothing, Sir, forget it.”

“Commander, can you speak with Doctor Westphalen for a moment. My apologies to you both, but I want to have a quiet word or two with the Lieutenant,” Bridger instructed. The idea he had in mind may not work yet. He could tell Kristin what he was planning for Ben to do, once on his island.

“No problem, Sir,” Ford responded. “Doctor, if you care to take a look, I think you will find this schedule provided by Mr Levine for your department to your liking,” he added, drawing Kristin away out of earshot from the Captain and Krieg. Both of them were wondering what all the secrecy was about, but didn’t want to intrude.

Ben gave the Captain his full attention, “Something I can do before you leave, Sir?”

“Not for me, Ben, but something for Lucas, while we are away. I wanted to have a quick word to you, and for the moment keep this between you and me,” Bridger explained. “Before he arrives here, I wanted to ask you about ordering some clothes for him on the quiet. Something that would suit his style, and his size. I saw the bag that he is intending to take with him.”

“The one that contained his mother’s medication?” Krieg gauged. “From what I remember, it was fairly small.”

Bridger nodded that it was, “The same one. It only has two sets inside of it, and he tells me that the shoes he is wearing, are the only ones that he owns. You will have a better idea of what someone his age would like, rather than me. Use that baseball shirt in the laundry that they are trying to get the bloodstains out of for a size comparison. As for the shoes, I have no idea, but leave it up to your best judgement.”

“I have a few people I can contact who should be able to help with the clothing. Shoes may be a little more complicated, but let me handle that,” Krieg told the Captain, confident that he could find out without arousing suspicion with the teenager. “You are right though, he may not be too willing to accept them being purchased for him.”

“Thanks, I appreciate it,” Nathan said. “Everything on-board now?”

“Yes, Sir, except for one small bag that we have mentioned,” Krieg replied. “When you get to your island, there is a mobile trolley in there that will make unloading the supplies so much easier. I showed Lucas where it is. None of you should have any trouble.”

“Hello to everyone, what are you all standing around idly for?” came a familiar voice from behind them. “Anybody could mistake the launch bay for a bus stop.”

“Lucas,” Kristin was the first to return his greeting, pleased to see him. The teenager was dressed in jeans, a long-sleeved undershirt, with a baseball jersey over the top that had been seen before today.

“This is going to be a great time, Lucas,” Nathan smiled in greeting as he moved back closer towards the group. Ben followed, concluding the private discussion they had been having.

“Thought you must have gotten lost, I expected you over half an hour ago,” Krieg teased in return, looking down at his watch and noting the time. “Hey, what is that you have on the bottom of your shoe?”

“What?” the teenager asked, stopping to lift up one of his sneakers to see if something was stuck to the bottom. “There is nothing there, I don’t see anything.”

Bridger inwardly rolled his eyes at the Lieutenant’s obvious ploy, but then again, gave merit to the man’s brazen frontal approach of the problem without drawing attention to what he was trying to achieve. Lucas hadn’t objected at all when Ben casually inspected the bottom of the shoe, and was able to get a size from the sole.

‘Shrewd, Mr Krieg, very shrewd’

Kristin and Ford shared a dubious look with each other, and their own conjecture confirmed by the expression on the Captain’s face. They could see the Morale officer was up to something, but they didn’t understand what.

“Sorry, my mistake, it looks fine now,” Ben apologised. “I thought you would be raring to go this morning.”

“Yeah well, that would be mostly your fault, Krieg, for keeping me awake,” the teenager returned, “It is too early to be doing anything at this hour of the day, but I wanted to make sure I was here in time to get a good spot.” He was aware that Kristin would already be scrutinizing him and picking up on his lack of sleep. His energy levels were charged enough for what lay ahead, fuelled by curiosity and the chance to experience something different.

Lucas could see the Captain glancing in his direction, with a smile on his face. He reached up with one hand, knowing what the man was taking note of.

“Sporting some nice new head-wear there, Lucas,” Krieg commented, chuckling at the manner in which the cap was sitting on the new owner.

“The Captain gave it to me last night,” Lucas gave in explanation, complete with a proud smile, “It is a fraction too big and it was sitting uncomfortably over the top of my ears, so to compensate for that, I decided to turn it around and wear it this way.”

“You have it on backwards,” Ben pointed out plainly. “I guess that is how the ‘in crowd’ keep being relevant.”

“It won’t do you any good in the sun, turned around like that once we reach the island, but for now, how you have it is fine,” Bridger interjected, receiving a crooked grin of appreciation for his support.

“Trust me, it looks way cooler on me like this, than on you, Krieg,” Lucas taunted playfully. “Don’t worry, Captain, by the time the sun gets too hot overhead, I should be parked in the shade of a palm tree instead.”

The missing half an hour that Ben had brought up, Lucas had spent in his cabin, psyching himself up. There were butterflies of excitement, mixed in with a heaped spoonful of negative feelings and emotions. No matter the promises and assurances that Bridger had given, his fears were genuine and were not going to evaporate overnight. For now, he was putting on his best smile, and wanting to participate.

Kristin walked a little closer towards Lucas, “Did you have any breakfast this morning?” she asked quietly, trying not to deliberately embarrass him, but wanting an honest answer.

Lucas didn’t have enough time to come up with a credible lie, and couldn’t hide the uncomfortable expression on his face quickly enough. “I was going to have something, but I was wary of my stomach becoming nauseous on the launch. This trip is going to be a few more hours than I have travelled in one before,” he admitted truthfully.

The doctor’s warm smile at his honesty didn’t waver, “Having a little something, even a piece of toast may have helped alleviate that problem to a degree.”

“Sorry,” he replied contritely, “I will remember that for next time. I was going to have coffee, but the thought of it sloshing around inside didn’t sound appealing either.” The teenager didn’t think it smart or to his advantage to bring up the fact that he didn’t have any food in his stomach on those occasions to Kristin.

“Hold out your hand please,” she instructed, pleased to hear that he had stopped consuming caffeine hours earlier, before the start of their journey.

Lucas did what was requested, but it wasn’t until she turned it over that he understood why. Discreetly, Kristin placed two gel capsules into his palm, gently closing his fingers around them. “Only take them when you feel that you need to.”

“Thank you,” he whispered, touched that she had remembered his propensity of suffering from motion sickness on boats. He gratefully accepted the medication and tucked into the top pocket of his jeans, hoping that taking them wouldn’t become necessary.

“Don’t feel ashamed or think of it as weakness, Lucas. I have some set aside for myself,” Kristin informed him.

You do?’ his eyes silently asked her with relief. Inwardly, he wished that his face wasn’t quite so readable to her.

______________________________________________________________________________

“Kristin and Lucas, are both of you ready to buckle yourselves in and prepare to depart?” Bridger enquired, taking note of the time. Half past seven, it would be a good four hours before they would reach their destination, depending on the current. He wasn’t expecting anything out of the ordinary other than a smooth ride.

“Yes! “Let’s get started,” Lucas declared. “See you in a few days, Commander Ford,” he said to the man, giving a quick wave goodbye. “I am claiming the co-pilot seat,” he announced, entering the launch and waiting for the other two passengers to do the same.

Ben Krieg followed him, intending to demonstrate how to buckle the safety harness of the co-pilot chair, merely as a precaution. He had meant to do it yesterday afternoon, but forgot when he left showing the cock-pit controls up to the Captain. As a launch operative for a number of years, first-hand knowledge had taught him to prepare for the unpredictable. He didn’t think that Bridger was going to be doing any speed records to get back home, and the waters of the Florida Keys should be peaceful and allow a smooth unobstructed voyage.

He wanted to wish the boy luck, without an audience or putting him on the spot in front of Ford or the Captain. Sometimes it purely was a guy thing.

Kristin was about to state that she was ready to get under-way as well, but turned at her name echoing from down the corridor.

“Doctor Westphalen!” her assistant called out. A moment later, Jane Edwards ran into the launch bay area, grasping something in her hands. She had to spend a moment catching her breath before she could talk.

“Jane, whatever could be so pressing that you had to run all this way?” she asked with concern. “At this hour of the morning I would expect to find you having breakfast.”

“Oh, I was, please believe me,” the petite woman stammered. “But then I remembered this coming in yesterday afternoon and noting the ‘Urgent’ written in red on the back. You were busy and I forgot to tell you about it until now. It looked too important to leave in your office and wait until you came back.”

Kristin took the large sized envelope from the woman and out of habit, glanced at the printed return address on the top left hand corner. The doctor immediately drew in a breath and gave a gasp of surprise. Turning it over, just as Jane had reported, the words ‘Urgent and Confidential’ stood out in stark contrast and in red ink. Carefully lifting the back flap and peeking inside, there was a folder marked with a name on the top. She quickly looked towards the launch, silently being thankful that Lucas had not been standing in the vicinity.

“Thank you for bringing this to my attention, Jane. You were correct in assuming that it was important and couldn’t wait,” the doctor praised. “Mr Levine is capable of handling anything that may crop up until then. I will see you when we return,” she added, and watched her assistant head back towards the science department.

Nathan waited until the woman had walked away before approaching, wanting to know the cause of her reaction, “What is the matter?”

“These are the medical records that I requested from the Hospital Registrar for Lucas. He gave me the written permission I needed to conduct a search, but I was expecting it to take a little longer to receive any results,” she stated with some in-trepidation. “No doubt existing under more secrecy about what was being done medically, without being able to link it back to his father. No wonder I couldn’t find anything initially under the surname ‘Wolenczak’. This file shows records under the patient name of ‘Lucas Holt’.”

“His mother, Cynthia’s name,” Nathan said, lowering his voice and watching the launch doors. They were both thinking the same thing. “Lucas doesn’t need to know the contents right now does he?” Ben was one of the trusted few who knew about the boy’s connection with surname Holt. That being said, however, the Captain was rather glad now that Lieutenant had followed Lucas into the launch and wasn’t overhearing them either.

The envelope itself had a considerable weight and thickness to it, suggesting that there were secrets caught within the pages inside. What they were could be was anybody’s guess, but neither of them wanted the spoil the upcoming trip before it even got started.

“No, I will put this out of sight until I have had a chance to view what is contained on the pages within first,” Kristin answered. “Lucas confided with me that he wasn’t certain that he wanted to know if there were any records in the first place, or find out anything else. I will let him know they exist once I have had a chance to examine them carefully, and he can make an informed decision on whether he still wants to be told or not.”

“Not today, please,” Nathan negotiated, hoping that Kristin would see it his way and wait to view the file.

“Agreed, not today,” Kristin replied, holding the envelope so that it was tucked out of sight. She would put it inside her personnel luggage and keep it hidden until she could make a detailed analysis.

Ford was trying not to listen, and could be trusted to maintain strict confidentiality and privacy, especially when they were talking about medical files. Obviously there was something significant about that piece of information. This was the first time he had heard any mention about Lucas’ mother’s name since the teenager had come on-board.

“You have my word, Doctor,” he simply stated when the doctor glanced in his direction. The Commander knew that Lucas was still reeling about some of the crew knowing about the abuse that had been inflicted upon him. There was no need to make that situation any more precarious than it already was, given that they had made a solemn pact and sworn to keep his dark secret.

“I will go and join Lucas before he comes back out looking for us,” Kristin stated to Bridger.

“I only have to officially hand over to Jonathan, and I will be along with you,” Nathan promised. He intended to keep the whole process simplified and uncomplicated. He still had his own set of instructions in a different sealed envelope to pass along.

Inside the launch, Kristin had just enough time to put the large envelope at the bottom of the bag that contained her personal clothing, before Ben came out of the cockpit.

“Oh there you are, Doc, the kid and I were starting to think you had changed your mind and this mission had been scrubbed,” he joked. “I was just about to come searching for you and the Captain.”

“Nathan is officially handing over to Commander Ford and wanted to pass along some last minute instructions. He will be along in a moment,” Kristin reported.

Using up all of the excuses he could think of to stay longer, Ben said a few final words in parting to his friend. “Have a great time, Lucas, we can catch up together on what you have seen in a few days.”

“Thanks, Ben, I will be thinking of you when I am lazying on the beach sand,” Lucas teased. “In the meantime, don’t work too hard.”

“Take care, Kristin, I will see myself out and check that the Captain is all set.”

“Thank you for all you have done to make this trip happen, Mr Krieg, and the hours of preparation,” she offered sincerely.

Without his keen diligence and efforts to gain Lucas’ trust, they may not have discovered that he was using attempting to cope with some of his underlying anxiety and fears through unique methods. By the time they did find out, the problems would have grown and become progressively worse.

“I haven’t put my plans into effect yet,” Ben told her with a sly grin, lowering his voice so that the conversation was only between the two of them. “Wait I come to the island on the last day and see what I have in mind. I am going to bring a bag full of surprises for fun on that last day.”

Kristin was left standing on her own in the cabin of the launch, trying to figure out what activities the charismatic man may have in store. Fun intended mainly for Lucas no doubt, but what exactly did that entail? Her curiosity was piqued.

______________________________________________________________________________

Bridger began addressing his Executive Officer, “Jonathan, this is the first time I have had to officially hand over to you during my short time aboard SeaQuest. You have been in command of this vessel before, so I don’t think there is the need to create a lot of fanfair. I trust your judgement and you are an experienced officer.”

“Yes, Sir,” Ford answered with his usual calm exterior, suspecting that the Captain had delayed the conversation between them to allow for a few last minute instructions that were not meant for other ears.

“You will be handing over to Commander Hitchcock in a couple of days, and I am presume that you have your own check list for that procedure and set of protocols that you adhere to. I appreciate what you have been required to relinquish on this occasion, and personally assure you that it will not go unrewarded.”

“Once we reach Key West, everything is expected to flow very smoothly, Captain, without incident,” Ford predicted with confidence.

“I know that you will both operate professionally during those few days, even without having all of the facts in front of you right now,” Nathan replied. “I will be able to relax that much better and focus on Lucas, knowing that my crew and the SeaQuest are in good and capable hands.”

Bridger withdrew the envelope that bore the U.E.O. insignia in the top hand left corner, “For now, the information and instructions contained within here, are for your eyes only. I would prefer the contents were not opened until the day you leave. There are further options in there for how to contact me on the island if normal communication channels fail.”

Ford accepted it, nodding his head in acknowledgement, and waiting for the Captain to give him a brief summary of what else was inside.

“In there, you will find the contact details of the man that I will be arranging to pick you and the other crew members that I have invited to my island on that last day,” Bridger explained. “You will all need to assemble very early at the very last pier on that morning, and bring your own personal belongings. I will be giving that man a list of a few items that the head chef couldn’t provide.”

The name of the person you will be looking for is “Eddie “Chumpy” Adamson. A long time friend who operates a large private charter cruise boat called ‘Sally’. He conducts daily tours from Miami to the Florida Keys and will know where to bring you.”

Ford was curious about whoever this person was and their connection to the Captain. Up until now, he had rarely heard him use a nick-name for anybody, and Bridger was determined to keep the location of his island secret until the very last minute.

“I believe Mr Krieg will be wanting to bring a few ‘extra’ items as well,” Bridger mentioned.

Nathan saw the problematic expression that crossed Ford’s face. He had seen first-hand the number and size of the boxes that Krieg had already finished loading into the launch not more than half an hour ago. “What else could he be possibly thinking of bringing?”

“I am just as in the dark as you,” Bridger conceded, “But it will only be for one day and night.”

Ford wanted to say that Krieg could come up with quite an elaborate scheme in that time frame, but chose not to say anything out loud. Now it was time for Jonathan to tell the Captain about what the arrangements were going to be for Darwin after the launch had departed.

“Sir, as per your earlier instructions to me, Darwin will be released once your launch is a safe distance away from the SeaQuest,” Ford stated. “Tim O’Neill has volunteered to keep visual contact on his progress for as long as possible.”

“Thank you, Jonathan, I know that you were probably expecting me to use the rebreather apparatus, but at the depth we currently are, it won’t be necessary. Darwin is going to be swimming with some of his own kind for the majority of his trek, and some of those other mammals may be wary of anything attached to his body. There is a natural bay that surrounds the island where he frequents the most,” Nathan replied. “Darwin will take considerable more time to reach home today, depending on how many friends he stops to play with along the way.”

“One last thing,” Bridger said, as he paused at the launch door, “Once we arrive, I will have to check on the fuel cells and get the generators up and running. I have all of the modern ways of communicating, but also need to rely on some of he older methods too. It always pays to keep them around, especially when there are storms about or bad weather. Thankfully, I don’t expect anything but glorious weather on this trip. Our journey to the island should take about four hours, give or take. I will contact the SeaQuest once I reach the pier.”

“Good luck, Commander,” Bridger said, extending his hand, and completing the friendly handshake with his second-in-command.

“Understood, Captain, the crew and I will see that your launch exits smoothly and safely, and then wait patiently to hear that all of you have arrived in the same manner.”

Bridger closed the external sea launch doors and made sure that they were secure before making his way towards the cockpit.

______________________________________________________________________________

“Oh there you are,” came the playful accusatory tone of voice from Lucas as he entered the control center. “Kristin and I were sitting here twiddling our thumbs with nowhere to go.”

“Sorry, I got a little caught up talking to Jonathan. I hope you both found something to talk about together.”

While they were waiting for Nathan, Kristin had used it as the perfect opportunity to talk to the teenager about the labelling he had done. Apart from giving her heartfelt thanks, she had wanted to know the reason why he had done it. Lucas had brushed aside the notion that he had done anything out of the ordinary, telling her that it was something that he had done to help out. No other reason. He had shrugged his shoulders at her words of praise for his efforts, and found it a little disconcerting.

For now, Kristin realised she would have to be content with that answer, but wished he had more belief in his own self worth.

“Yeah, we did,” Lucas confirmed, sharing a small grin with the doctor, but nothing about what they had talked about. Kristin returned the smile, keeping their secret.

Bridger secured the small hatch door of the cockpit, noting a small cooler bag on the spare seat directly behind Lucas.

Kristin filled him in on what was inside, “I brought some cold drinks along, but put them in here since there is only three of us to cater for. Juice and water to keep us hydrated.”

“That’s a great idea,” Nathan praised, grateful for her forethought about such small details.

“How are you feeling inside here, Kristin? A little different I would assume since you don’t get to travel up here very often.”

“I must admit that it feels a little claustrophobic, being such a small confined space,” the red-haired doctor answered. “Everywhere I look behind me, to the sides and in front, there are instruments and electronic control panels. In all directions, and very necessary and important I am sure. I am used to seeing a lot of medical equipment in a hospital or my own department on a regular basis. In here, with blinking lights and digital read outs available for every possible scenario from life support, to navigation and propulsion, it is very daunting being crammed into this limited area.”

After such a comprehensive overview, Nathan turned to the teenager, wondering what his reaction or answer was going to be. It occurred to him that this was the first opportunity for him to experience something like this. “What is your impression, Lucas?”

“What, of being up front here?” Lucas clarified, a little surprised that the man was bothering to ask his opinion. “An up close and unobstructed view of the ocean like no other, once we leave the SeaQuest. What is not to like? This is the best!”

Nathan was very pleased to hear his response, considering that they haven’t even left yet. “Everyone buckled in securely?”

“Yes, thank you,” Kristin replied. She was seated directly behind the pilot’s chair, where there wasn’t a whole lot of extra leg room.

“Captain, how do I get this to sit correctly without digging into my shirt?” Lucas asked, fidgeting with one of the large buckle’s that made up his safety harness. “Ben showed me how it works and what to do to release it, but at the moment it is biting into my skin and is very restrictive,” he added, pulling at the nylon strap to signify his discomfort.

“Well that won’t do, let me take a look at see what the problem is.” Nathan released the buckle that was the source of the teenager’s frustration, noting that it was too tight. After pulling on the strap closer to the top, and making a small adjustment to the metal fastening, “There, try that and tell me how that feels. With any luck you will notice a difference,” he instructed, allowing Lucas to reattach that side of the harness himself.

“Somewhat better,” Lucas commented, but still squirming, noting only a small amount of change. He forced himself to pull his hands away, otherwise he would be constantly fiddling with it. “I still cannot move a whole lot, but I guess that it is necessary to have it done up correctly like this to work effectively,” he conceded.

“I am sure you will get used to it over the next few hours,” Nathan said with empathy.

The Captain settled himself into the pilot’s chair, adjusting his own harness and buckling into position. It had been sometime since he had piloted a launch himself. This particular model had been upgraded from what he was used to, but the basics were the same. Silently he had to agree with the teenager about its restrictiveness.

Without further ado, Bridger placed the communication headset over his ears, and began his check list of safety steps. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Lucas’ sharp mind watching his actions and drinking everything in like a sponge. Some of them were self-explanatory given the array of labelled buttons that could be read at his fingertips, any others could probably be guessed at according to the result they invoked.

Nathan had been expecting a multitude of questions to come in his direction, but when that didn’t happen, he began verbally explaining what he was doing. The teenager was too shy to speak up, but appreciated that the man was willing to indulge the interest he could see. His method seemed to work, when he shared a smile with Lucas and received a genuine one in return.

Kristin was watching the interaction between Nathan and Lucas, and couldn’t have been more happier about what she was witnessing. She didn’t want to intrude at all. Nathan’s quiet, unassuming but attentiveness was allowing a special fragile trust to grow between them.

Once he was satisfied with the instrument panel that was lighting up in front of him, the engines thrummed into life, and sent a jolt of excitement running through each passenger that this adventure was about to start.

“This is the pilot of sea launch MR-7 requesting permission to depart.”

“Captain, permission given to proceed with care when you are ready to pilot the launch out of the designated docking bay,” came the reply. “Please have a smooth and safe journey, and we will see you in four days.”

“Thank you, Mr O’Neill, we will endeavour to do that and look forward to seeing you all at that time. Bridger out.”

Out in the corridor and throughout SeaQuest, the loud speaker was giving the latest automated announcement of comings and goings.

‘SeaQuest MR-7 now departing Docking Bay Number Three’

______________________________________________________________________________

For the first half an hour, the sea launch needed to use the bright lighting mounted on the exterior to navigate the darker depths. The bands of light were wide, but were concentrated and narrowed the visibility area to the occupants.

The variety at that level still didn’t disappoint, and Lucas could he heard calling out a number of fish species that he could easily identify. Nathan and Kristin readily joined in with him, and were both enjoying themselves immensely.

Another half an hour would pass, with the launch steadily climbing towards the surface before there was an improvement on, with the sunlight from above penetrating the surface of the water, and changing the colour of the water with spectacular results. The murmurs of awe were the first real sounds of the wonderment of nature that they were witnessing. Bridger had seen it before, but even he had to admit that the view through the front windshield of the launch was unsurpassed.

“It looks like one of those giant aquarium places that you hear about people visiting visit on land,” Lucas casually stated, “One where you could reach your hand out through the glass and touch them because everything seems so alive.”

“Have you been to one of those Aquariums before, Lucas?” Kristin asked, fearing she already knew the answer from how he worded the comment.

“Who me?” Lucas turning towards her as much as the harness would allow, “No, but one of my friends during college have and told me about his visit,” he answered wistfully, quickly focusing back on the fish. “Maybe it would be neat to see for myself one day, but in all honestly, this view is spectacular and more than I could hope for.”

As a parent herself, to hear the wishful desire in Lucas’ voice, and his acceptance that it was probably never going to happen was difficult for both of them.

It was true that not every child got to attend an aquarium or animal zoo, and those individuals that missed out, grew up to lead perfectly normal and productive lives. However, some parents saw the value of such fun places because they were interested in enriching and furthering their son or daughter’s educational growth, social interaction and development. And from personal experience, nothing could compete with the beaming smile on a child’s face when the palm of their hand was tickled by a friendly marine creature or could touch the soft fur coat of a land based animal.

Lucas didn’t pick up on the heartache in Kristin’s voice about what opportunities he may have already missed out on due to his father’s selfishness and neglect, but Nathan certainly did. Bridger had not been planning on taking Lucas to those type of places on this trip, but swore that it would be the start of a variety of fresh and new opportunities for the teenager. Thankfully the coral reef outside were enough at the moment to keep him distracted and provide endless stimulation for his ever-active brain.

“The water is a very appealing turquoise colour and very clear,” Kristin remarked, focusing on what was being laid out before them by mother nature, and being positive for Lucas’ sake. “Gives a translucent quality to everything down here, enabling the vibrant colour of each species of fish to stand out.

“What would be even better, is to know someone who owns a glass-bottomed boat and slowly meander through all of this natural world,” Nathan hinted at with a knowing grin. “This trip is too short for that unfortunately. But maybe at some other time? Maybe throw in a little snorkelling too.”

“That would be amazing!” Lucas declared. “I have never done anything like that before. I mean, do you know someone?” he started to ask, but rephrased the tone. “Sorry, I never meant to presume.” Feeling a little guilty, he didn’t know why he automatically thought that the Captain would invite him along, no matter when he did those things or who he knew.

“I will put them on my ‘to do list’, Nathan said with a laugh. A moment earlier, he had seen the delight that the idea of those fun outdoor activities did for Lucas. And then saw the smile fade towards the end and heard the uncertainty of the boy’s words. “Don’t worry, we can do them together. I won’t forget you.”

Lucas stared at the Captain for a moment, unsure what to say in return. Nathan didn’t need anything to be said, and went back to watching the fishes outside, knowing that he had instilled a little hope in the teenager, and given him things to hope for. Obviously Lawrence Wolenczak had never done the same often enough.

Kristin had watched the exchange between them, and like earlier as they were departing, could see the natural and easy manner that Nathan used with Lucas. By simply talking to the boy, and listening to him, the impact he was having could not be underestimated.

Looking down at her watch, the doctor noted the time, “My look at the time this morning, it has flown by,” Kristin reported. “Would anyone like a drink?”

“Yes, please,” Bridger answered, taking a cold bottle of water when Kristin held up two choices.

“Lucas?” Kristin offered, about to reach in and grab another bottle of water to replace the first. She could see that the teenager was thinking and about to refuse both.

The teenager found a cold bottle of juice pushed into his hand, and finally relented, taking the bottle and twisting off the lid and drinking from the container. Part of him didn’t like her forthrightness, and determination to persevere without pushing too hard. The other part, grateful that she kept trying, and wanting to be able to tell her so.

Whilst he was drinking the juice, Kristin was keeping an eye on Lucas for any signs of him feeling nauseous. The colour of his face was good, and he wasn’t displaying any other tell-tale symptoms that she would naturally attribute to motion sickness. He looked like he was going to say something, but was looking out at the marine wonderland in front of him again, mesmerised as they all were by the colours, shapes and patterns.

In one particular section of the water, the sunlight was still penetrating and creating a marvellous affect at just the right angle. Without any warning, two bottle-nosed dolphins came into view, both of them dancing in a vertical position, their skin shimmering as the light hit their bodies and was reflected back.

They didn’t stay very long and swam off, carrying out a series of playful dives around each other. Unfortunately being inside the launch, their clicks and whistles couldn’t be heard. “Do you think they could be friends with Darwin?” Lucas asked, still watching the performance and thinking of his own aquatic friend.

“Maybe,” Nathan said, not wanting to dampen the boy’s energy, but the odds of these two individuals being family to his own cetacean friend were fairly slim. “Bottle-nosed dolphins live in these waters of the Florida Keys all year round.”

“The Florida Keys is a unique region and is home to a vast and diverse number of fish and wildlife species that are find these waters essential for their own health. In return, they help create an ecosystem that accommodates and allows for all kinds of ecological, recreation, and commercial fishing activities. These animals depend on healthy coral reef, seagrass, mangroves, and other habitats throughout their lives. Without they help and funding of the U.E.O. in recent years to reverse the trend of come unscrupulous people and outright pirates, they are vulnerable to exploitation. Their diet is easily affected by climate change, erosion and degradation of areas such as this that they call home,” Nathan described. “This is all part of the research that I have been carrying out on my island for years. I will show you in detail when we get there, what I have been monitoring during that time.”

“I think it is so great that you have been doing all that research and helping to understand them,” Lucas praised. “So many of these natural places across the world are being damaged by big corporate business, who don’t even give a second thought to what they are doing.”

“I agree with Lucas on that and think that the work you have been doing, Nathan, is very admirable and worthwhile,” Kristin commented. Both adults were surprised at the teenager’s take on the predicament that some marine species found themselves in, through greed and indifference. If only more of the his generation would stand up and take action, then problems like the pollution of the sea water and building more places on the surface for humans could be halted. Marine creatures could easily co-exist with humans and thrive; all it took was for someone to care about the environment they both lived in.

“Thank you both for your vote of confidence. I have been passionate about these waters for a long time,” Bridger explained. “The fish populations in this area are protected by a series of ‘no-take’ zones, so they have more time to establish themselves here in greater numbers. That level of safety provided is directly related to the size, configuration and habitat of that particular species. By understanding their movements and behaviour more, those species that are more vulnerable to exploitation can be identified and managed better.”

Kristin was very impressed, having a strong knowledge of marine biology herself. She was very pleased to hear Nathan’s theories and the history behind their numbers dwindling in the past. The fact that someone was taking decisive action to monitor what was happening in their own backyard was very commendable.

“Oh wow! Did you get a look at that?” Lucas exclaimed as a large loggerhead turtle swam directly in front of the launch. “They are huge! Their shells must weigh a ton, having to carry them on their backs all of the time.”

It was hard not for Nathan and Kristin not to break out with smiles of their own, at the short bursts of exuberance coming from Lucas. They hadn’t seen him being this happy, or even anything even close on-board SeaQuest. It was a pity that Ben and some of the other crew members had to miss out on seeing him react like this, purely based on having a great time. They could hear about it later of course, but it wouldn’t be the same.

“Lucas, look over to your right, in that cave there,” Kristin pointed out, waiting patiently to see if he could see it too.

The teenager looked in the direction she was pointing, and was about to give up, when he spotted a large pair of eyes blinking back from within the darkness. “What is it?” but no sooner had he asked the question, a large speckled grouper fish swam out of the entrance at speed, chasing down the meal of a smaller fish. The size was very impressive.

“Spectacular!” Lucas gave in response to the outmatched race, “So big, and it was perfectly camouflaged in that cave, that poor little fish didn’t stand a chance until it was too late. Survival of the fittest down here.”

Kristin couldn’t have timed it better and hadn’t predicted the large fish to emerge in such a dramatic fashion, but he had gained a captive audience.

“There are so many different types of corals down here,” Lucas stated. “I know some of them, and their genus names, but not all. Look at all those little fishes using those larger corals to hide in.”

“The Florida Keys has more than forty five species of hard or stony corals, Lucas, and thirty five types of soft corals. Quite a number of those are declared as threatened or listed as endangered,” Bridger filled in. “Factors such as weather, the temperature of the sea water, natural but harmful algae blooms all play their part in making it more difficult for them to recover once disturbed. Then there are diseases and ocean acidification that affect the time it takes for them to regrow or suffer as well.”

“The day after tomorrow, once we have reached the island and get unpacked, I will take you down to some of the rock pools and sheltered inlets at the far end of the beach. Bridger promised. “Keeping in mind that you still have bruising in a few places to be careful about. You will be able to paddle around in the cool water and soft sand with your bare feet and touch some of the small friendly crabs and marine creatures, Lucas,”

“Really?” Lucas asked with a fresh bubble of excitement. Bridger didn’t realised how much he liked the idea of being able to touch the sand and water. Something very simplistic to others, but it would be a dream come true for him.

“Yes, really,” Bridger answered with a laugh.

There was that slight tone of disbelief to the boy’s voice again, as though he didn’t think he deserve to do such fun things. A big question began to form and stare back inside Nathan’s mind, but he was afraid to ask it out loud and destroy the small amount of happiness that had built up during the last few hours. Most children liked the rock pools and the beach, as he did himself. How many times had Lucas been to the ocean? Once, twice, never?

“There are quite a variety of marine creatures that dwell in those shallow tidal pools and rely on the waves to bring the food they eat, and the nutrients the require in the salt of the sea spray,” Bridger told him.

For the next twenty minutes, all chatter in the cockpit of the launch stopped as the occupants continued to watch out of the front window, gaining the best vantage point. Kristin was about to call out to Lucas and point out something else interesting she could see, but upon looking over at the teenager, chose to remain quiet. She glanced over at Nathan, and saw that he had yet to notice, smiling to herself as she decided the best way to tell him.

“Nathan, I appreciate that you understand all of those controls and instruments you have in front of you, but do they tell you absolutely everything?” she enquired.

“Yes they do. What do you mean by that?” Bridger replied, thinking that she was taking a playful swipe at his piloting skills. He ran his eyes over the speed they were travelling at and noted the depth of the launch. The temperature outside was still mild, and comfortable inside, according to the data that was being recorded. Everything was in balance so far as he could tell and they were a few miles ahead of where he had planned to be at this time.

“What about if you co-pilot is no longer working?”

“I haven’t engaged the co-pilot controls yet……………,” he began, but looked to his right enough to see what the doctor was trying hard ‘not’ to say. He hadn’t noticed that the co-pilot was currently out of commission, and felt a little guilty that he hadn’t picked it up on it before her.

“I am sure that you would be able to consider a career as a tour guide, because you seem to have a knack for keeping your audience riveted,” Kristin teased. “I estimate he hasn’t heard anything you have said for the last fifteen minutes.”

“Very funny,” he whispered, deliberately lowering his voice. “How long has he been like that?”

“I don’t know myself, but I would guess more than a few minutes, given his relaxed posture,” she surmised.

They had both seen the tiredness when he first arrived in the launch bay, but after setting out, he had been showing an improved level of alertness for more than half of the journey. Ben had reported truthfully to them about him being awake during the early morning hours again. They should have suspected that he had spent the morning running on fumes. They could see the proof before them.

Kristin found herself acting like a concerned parent again,“I don’t want to wake him, and it would feel cruel to do so. But he is going to end up with a stiff neck by staying in that position for much longer. I cannot imagine that any sleep he is gaining is going to be restful.”

“This trip has to change this, Kristin. I know it has already been said, but we need to work together as a team over the next few days and try and find a workable solution. I don’t want him dozing off or catching snatches of sleep here and there. I want him to get some descent rest, not during the day, and be awake all hours in the middle of the night, opposite to everyone else. That is only going to exacerbate and reinforce his isolation from the crew.”

Kristin was nodding her head, agreeing with everything that he was saying, and the sentiments behind the words. Lucas was still trying to face everything on his own. Instead of admitting to tiredness. The whole reason for this break away was happening right before them, and neither could ignore the tugs they felt on their heart strings.

“We have plenty of time to pause here for a few minutes,” he assured her, slowing the speed down, and then halting the progress of the launch.

Lucas was leaning slightly forward in the co-pilot’s chair at an awkward angle. His upper body hunched over, but suspended by the restrictive harness. The new cap he had been wearing backwards, was cradling the right side of his head and in danger of falling off completely onto the floor.

“He hasn’t even heard the two of us talking to one another,” Bridger said, remembering how fatigued he had been only a few nights ago in his own cabin. Nathan unbuckled his own harness, intending to go against Kristin’s wishes and wake Lucas. They may be three quarters through the journey, but he wasn’t going to let him remain sitting like that for the remainder of the journey. He was going to make that change now. Picking up the half-empty juice container, he recapped it to avoid spillage and set it aside.

Nathan called out softly, not wanting to startle him. His first attempt at using his name was unsuccessful, so he tried for a second time. “Lucas.” The Captain reached for the buckles on the harness, releasing them.

“Hey, what the…..,” came the garbled response, as the teenager partially woke, his hands reaching up in front defensively. For the briefest of moments, his muscles tensed at feeling someone’s hands, but the sensation faded just as quickly. Glancing back at Bridger with bleary eyes, his internal warning system was telling him that the owner of this face wasn’t a threat.

Nathan adjusted his method of contact, understanding, but saddened that recoil was Lucas’ first natural reaction to touch. The cap did fall off onto the floor, so he retrieved it and handed it over to Kristin for safe keeping. Lucas hadn’t noticed yet that he wasn’t wearing it on his head. Seeing the doctor standing, he assumed that she was intending to follow him and keep him company.

“Come on, let’s get you standing up and out of this seat,” Bridger encouraged with patience.

“What is going on?” he repeated, followed quickly by a yawn, covering his mouth and yawning expansively again into his sleeve. He rubbed a hand over his face, trying to wake, but that only accentuated his tiredness.

“You are going to go into the cabin at the back with Kristin, and have a little sleep until we arrive. There is still an hour or so before we reach our destination, but you won’t miss out on anything.”

Nathan wasn’t certain how many of his words were filtering through to the teenager. Lucas stood up, waiting until he regained his equilibrium, “But, I want to see the fishes,” he murmured in protest.

“You will get to see them more later,” Bridger proclaimed, keeping a supportive hand close by, but allowing him to maintain his independence. He made a silent vow that he would do everything he could to ensure that Lucas had plenty of time to explore this abundant sanctuary.

For a moment Nathan thought he was going to get an argument to the contrary, but was pleased when that didn’t eventuate.

Becoming a little more aware of what was being asked of him, Lucas shuffled a few steps sideways around the chair, and moved towards the hatch door of the cockpit.

“Sorry I dozed off in there,” Lucas began to apologise, plopping down on the cushions, lifting his feet and slumping horizontally along the padded seat. “I am really not that tired, I don’t need to sleep…….,” but the end of the sentence faded away as his eyes drifted closed.

“You don’t need to anything right now,” Bridger patronised with mock exasperation at the teenager, and sharing a smirk of victory with Kristin. The boy was determined not to admit defeat, even against his own body’s betrayal.

“Why do you have to be so stubborn?” Nathan whispered, trying to figure out if this whole futile exercise was an inability to let go of any daily turmoil and hence, a coping mechanism. Or did it merely stem from being a teenager?.

“The two of you will be alright back here?” he asked rhetorically, seeing Kristin take her own seat. Even with Lucas laying down and stretched out with his shoes down the other end, there was plenty of room for them both. She knew that Lucas didn’t need her company and would be perfectly fine on his own, but resigned herself to staying nonetheless.

“I wanted to keep seeing the fishies too,” she pouted, almost making the mistake of letting go a burst of laughter at the expression on his face. In apology, she ran a hand softly across Lucas’ forehead as he mumbled a word or two in his sleep.

“Only for those good girls and boys,” Bridger teased at her charade. He took great satisfaction at shushing her with two fingers in front of his lips, and receiving a mock scowl in his direction.

Both of them were feeling very natural in each other’s company. Enough for pleasant conversation and to share a joke. This short break away may do the both of them some great benefit as well, and help them unwind from their usual hectic and demanding responsibilities. When they returned to SeaQuest after the next four days, they were both only too aware that such opportunities may be short lived.

“Keep an eye on him for me will you?” Bridger requested as he headed back towards the hatch door to the cockpit. “And if he gives you any trouble………,” waggling a finger in mock sternness.

“Two eyes, at all times,” she assured him with a warm smile, knowing how much Nathan cared. Looking over at the peaceful sleeping face beside her, positive that he didn’t need to worry about anything else. “Lucas and I will be just fine.”

To be continued…………………………

Jules

Author Notes:

Sorry folks, this chapter doesn’t have a whole lot of action, and took double the amount of time to write. I have no valid excuse for that except that my muse wasn’t following well at the beginning.

Some of this chapter explores more of Bridger’s thoughts as well as Lucas, and I hope that I have been a little realistic in my interpretation. Bridger is usually a calm and collective and strong character, but sometimes there needs to be a chinck in that armour. Lucas’ emotions are still a roller coaster, and constantly changing, but that is how I would see someone reacting with his dark past. Positive and Negative. There is a lot more to come in that area too.

This is one of the longest stories I have written for any fandom, but we are only about half way at this stage with Chapter Five. That is subject to change, but it will be longer, not shorter.

The new character of Eddie Adamson was only mentioned briefly in this chapter. How Bridger and he know each other will be explored in more detail soon. Four days on the island is expected to take two chapters. They are intended to be mostly happier times with a lot of new things happening. But that will soon change afterwards for those readers who know me as an author. (I am itching too, believe me but cannot reveal anything at this time) Although I want to get to more action, these fill in chapters are setting up a lot of detail and clues for this story and many others to come. Some are obvious, others not so much.

I know that some meat has been outlawed by the time frame that SeaQuest is in, and that has been mentioned. I have also included scenarios that used alternative meat products and processed substitutes, but still refer to cooking meat in some dishes and scenes.

It was a difficult choice to leave Ben out from coming along from the very beginning, but I am sticking by my choice. There will be plenty of time for him to become involved. And no, the reason for the title of this story still hasn’t come up yet.

I did do some research in some areas, and included some real facts. Others have been changed and altered to suit what I need to happen. I hope you will continue to follow the journey. Bridger’s island is based on a real place, but the name has been changed, much more to learn about all that yet. There are more permanent new characters to introduce in the next chapter.

I know it took forever to herd three people and supplies into a launch and leave the SeaQuest, but I hope you enjoy reading what I have created and continue to follow what happens next.

Jules

Chapter Four – Surveillance And Disclosure

THE GREEN PEN

By Jules

Author Notes – thank you for everybody who is still reading. It truly means a lot that people are reading after such a long time of being away. I hope you enjoy this next instalment.

This is the second story in my new series, and it would be helpful for you to read Please Tell Someone as this story continues straight into a new page from the ending scenes of that story.

This particular chapter does not have a lot more action happening, but is necessary to set up some of the key events yet to come later in this story.

The reason for this title will not become apparent until much later in the story, but was thought of ten (10) years ago or more, when the original plot came to me long before I added in the new adoption arc.

Any legal references, laws, requirements for reporting abuse, the steps taken afterwards, court proceedings and outcomes and interview protocols are all fictional. Some are based loosely on real laws and circumstances, but a lot are fabricated to suit my story only and have been changed to suit the plot I have derived. The same with which authorities are involved and their individual roles and responsibilities.

With some of my medical procedures, I have used real techniques and treatments to a certain extent, but there are some that are completely invented for my stories as well and are totally fictional and should not be used for real people. They are used to progress my stories and include for specific scenes as required.

Given that SeaQuest is set in the future, medical technology would have changed greatly, with new procedures and medications and medicines being discovered and put into practice.

Chapter Four – Surveillance And Disclosures

towards the end of the previous chapter:

Nathan whispered very softly, “Please don’t shut out the people who care and want to help, Lucas.”

And now the story continues:

Lucas’ brief unscheduled catnap was interrupted a few minutes later, as a number of crew members arrived at the mess hall for their own breakfast. A group of four people crashed through the doors, chatting away as they approached the serving tables, each picking up a tray.

The teenager was startled awake by the new voices and the clinking sound of crockery and cutlery, as trays were gathered and they began forming an orderly line. Rubbing at his face, the boy sat up and noticed that he had an impromptu audience.

‘Oops’ he thought to himself, he definitely had not intended for this to happen.

The teenager gave a sheepish grin to hide his embarrassment, “I told you this was a bad time of the day for me,” he gave as a quick fire excuse, shrugging off the possibility of there being any other reason for him falling asleep at the table.

I guess I will head to my cabin for a while,” he added with some hesitation, not knowing what else they wanted to hear. He hoped that none of them intended to follow him to try and talk. He wasn’t in the mood for any in-depth conversation or even to give a cheery ‘good morning’ yet to them.

I think that is a very good idea, Lucas,” Bridger agreed, holding off on wanting to debate anything where they were standing.

Thank you for breakfast, Don,” the boy said as he walked towards the set of doors leading out. He didn’t give any indication about what his schedule was going to be for the day.

My pleasure, Lucas, any time. Don’t forget to come back in here later today,” the head chef called out, receiving a hand gesture in acknowledgement of his statement. There was no further confirmation of what meal time he intended to return for.

After watching Lucas leave, Ben proceeded to line up in the queue with his own tray for breakfast. Kristin and the Captain sat down at the table that the teenager had left behind, with the chef promising to bring out their first meals of the day to them. Coffee was of course included with that offer.

Ben rejoined them with his overflowing tray. Sitting down to be included in the casual conversation, Miguel, Tim and Jonathan Ford arrived in the mess hall. They also took trays and selected their varying choices for breakfast. The Captain gestured for them to join their table.

Good morning, Doctor Westphalen and Captain,” Ford said formally. “We are all in here early this morning.”

Pleasant morning greetings were exchanged between everyone as Miguel and Tim took up seats at the table.

I have to start my day shift after breakfast, so I was up earlier so that I could tend to my plants,” O’Neill commented in answer to Ford’s comment.

My shift starts after I finish here too,” Miguel added as his reason. “What is your excuse today, Krieg?” not daring to ask Doctor Westphalen or the Captain.

I have some important things to attend to this morning, Ortiz,” Ben said cryptically, but his usual jovial persona then changed. “Unfortunately there were certain individuals seated at this table before you arrived that were awake and up even earlier.”

Who?” Ford asked, trying to think of the duty roster for other crew members on-board. Most day shifts on the Bridge didn’t start until seven o’clock in the morning. He had not been thinking about their resident computer geek being up at such an early time.

Lucas,” Krieg answered. “Something was definitely bothering that kid, apart from what we already know about. Though my stellar efforts last night probably went a long way towards that too,” he added in self reproach. “Before you three came in here a few moments ago, we discovered him slumped over the table here sound asleep. At least Don had seen to it that he had eaten decently this morning.”

Commander Ford looked about the faces at the table wearing a puzzled expression. He didn’t note that coming from Miguel and Tim. Jonathan assumed that he was the only one out of the loop about anything that happened the previous night involving the teenager.

I haven’t seen Lucas since he left the recreation room,” Ortiz piped in. “Surely he went back to his cabin to sleep last night?”

Tim nodded his head in agreement, “He was pretty upset from what I could see like I told you, but it wasn’t all your fault, Ben.”

Nathan told me about the incidents involving those horrid men yesterday that occurred even earlier than your movie night,” Kristin interjected. “By the time he came down to the science department, I could tell that something was wrong, but I didn’t know what. He didn’t stay there long enough for me to find out. He was trying to avoid any scrutiny, but unfortunately he wasn’t able to hide his anxiety. I think Lucas only went down to my laboratories looking for a safe haven until he got himself a little more under control emotionally.”

He probably suspected that someone would follow him back to his cabin after leaving the movie, and tried to find an alternative place,” Ortiz surmised.

Movie?” Ford asked, following that somehow Lucas had become upset and was looking to hide away from everybody and find some space for himself.

I am sorry you were not invited last night, Commander,” Krieg replied. “After you heard his choice words to Murphy near the moon pool, I drummed up an impromptu social night, with only a handful of people. I was trying to create a more social atmosphere, where he could relax. The Captain and I limited who the guests were because we weren’t even sure if he was going to turn up in the first place. It wouldn’t have mattered who came in the end anyway after the epic failure that the night turned into.”

No problem, Krieg,” Ford remarked. A movie night seemed a little low key to him compared to some of the other social events that the Morale Officer held.

Those seated at the table were part of Bridger’s small network; Krieg felt the need to continue a little more about how their young friend was fairing in general after yesterday.

Lucas stormed past Bridger and me in the corridor and declared that he wasn’t talking to the human race for the rest of eternity. He had a whole lot more to say back in his cabin to me though when I tried to talk to him. That time he wasn’t holding back and I got the first real glimpse of how he has viewed his whole situation since coming on-board, and I can’t say that I blame him.

Firstly those two idiots in the Captain’s quarters who were supposed to be putting the new furniture pieces together. Followed by Murphy tossing aside any help he was trying to offer about the computer system. Both times involved people attempting or succeeding in getting inside his personal space physically, which he is dead set against for obvious reasons.”

Lucas admits to feeling disillusioned about how standoffish people are about his offers to help around here, and the efforts that he has been putting in just to fit in around here in general,” Krieg explained. “He stated to me that almost every day since arriving here, and every time he turns around, someone finds it necessary for him to justify his presence on-board. Yesterday it happened more than once on the same day, deliberately. I guess even a nice, quiet and withdrawn kid like him has a breaking point too, because it was close to snapping. His tirade didn’t last long, and he was more pessimistic than angry by the time I left his cabin.”

The movie I chose had a boxing storyline to it,” Krieg informed Ford. “Tim told us that he observed Lucas trying to shield himself from the sounds and images on the screen with a cushion. I didn’t know that it would trigger bad memories about his father for him.”

The doctor had made a mental note the previous night to say something to him about his efforts being positive ones. Now seemed like the perfect time, and to prevent Ben from berating himself over something that was out of his control. None of the people seated at the table thought less of him. More importantly, she was convinced that Lucas most likely wouldn’t do so either.

Now you listen to me, Lieutenant,” Kristin lightly scolded, pointing a finger at him, but using a gentle tone of voice, noting that his own guilt was the enemy at the moment.

Nobody blames you for how he was feeling last night, Ben. You tried to do something nice for both the Captain and Lucas, and a movie that I suspect holds memories that you and Nathan’s son shared together as good friends. You are a caring person and you were merely carrying out an act of kindness,” she said. “ I am a doctor, so don’t even think of arguing with me,” she added with a smile.

The other men except Bridger gathered around the breakfast table were grinning at the chastising the Ben was receiving from Kristin. It was clear though from the expression on his face, that the man still wasn’t totally convinced that his actions hadn’t caused more hurt for the teenager.

Tell that to Lucas,” Ben said, looking direct back at her. “You both saw like I did, how tired his face looked when he was sleeping across this very table. At an hour that he is quite convinced needs to be recorded as a crime.”

Nathan couldn’t help but mull over some of the comments that Ben had shared around the table, spoken by Lucas. He wished the teenager had shared more of what he was feeling with him earlier in the day in his quarters.

Kristin is right, Ben,” Bridger interjected, “You tried to do something positive. We need you to be the happy and carefree person that we usually see and keep being his friend. And I will repeat that I do appreciate what you tried to do last night for my benefit concerning Robert. I hope you will share more of the times you spent together when you feel like doing so.”


By now, everyone at the table had finished their meals, and were down to their second and last cups of coffee before departing to start their duties. It was still relatively early, and more crew members were coming in for their own breakfast. From this table, they could speak without worrying about being overheard too much. With Bridger seated at the table, most crew members thought that the Captain was conducting a morning briefing about the vessel and intended to steer clear.

Since all of us are gathered here around the same table, we may as well have a little impromptu meeting amongst our little network,” Bridger suggested. “Those who are currently present anyway. I may as well let you in on what new pieces of information and interesting clues that I found out about Lucas yesterday. Firstly in the morning when he was working on the holographic program in my quarters. Secondly, later in the evening when I went to check up on him after he left the movie so suddenly.”

Krieg tried to do what the Captain was asking; push his guilt aside. The man was right, Ben needed to act like his normal self. He was intrigued by the ‘new’ information being offered. He noticed that everybody else sitting at the table was eager to listen too.

Bridger turned to the doctor first, seeing that he did have everybody’s undivided attention, “You told me yesterday morning that Lucas wanted to ask me a question about something, but didn’t tell you what.”

That’s right, Lucas told me that it didn’t really matter and wasn’t that important after he left your quarters,” Kristin stated, recalling the words she had previously repeated to Nathan from the teenager.

After he found you in there asleep in your chair, Sir,” Krieg chuckled with mirth. There were three sets of raised eyebrows after this curious comment from Ben. “Hopefully the new armchair we put together for you this morning will be a little more comfortable for the next time you decide to take a snooze.”

Anyway…..” the Captain said, trying to divert the conversation back to what he was saying. “I found out what the question was. After you left Ben, and while you were escorting those two clowns to the Bridge, Lucas stayed when I asked him to. Reluctantly at first because of what had happened, but then he and I talked for a few minutes. He began looking around at some of the artifacts and historical pieces I have on display in my quarters and asking about their origins.”

What he was really doing apart from looking from a general interest point-of-view, was hedging away from something he was finding difficult to ask me. He admitted to me himself that he had been trying to pluck up the courage to ask the question for a few days,” Bridger continued. “On a good news front, he may not have any family that he can count on to help him through these difficult times, but he does have friends outside.”

Ben was the first react, “Friends? Well of course he does, he is a likeable type of kid. That is great isn’t it?”

Two best friends he tells me,” Bridger revealed and nodded at Ben’s remark. “I know very little about them yet, but Lucas wanted to ask me if he could contact them to let them know where he was living now. Being placed aboard SeaQuest with only last minute notice, he tells me he didn’t get the chance to tell them beforehand.”

That is fantastic news, Nathan,” Kristin said with a smile. “We asked about other family members that could be contacted, but didn’t consider that there was another possibility. I hope you told him it would be alright to contact them.”

Yes, of course I did, but I didn’t quite understand why he was so nervous. He told me that he trusts these two friends with his life,” Bridger reported. “He was quite relieved when I told him could. He told me that he would tell me more about them both at another time.”

So when is he going to contact them?” Ben asked, wanting to find out more about these friends. The loyalty and dependability between these two mysterious friends and Lucas must run deep. Considering that the teenager wouldn’t let too many people on-board yet get close to him, and that he had willingly told Bridger.

Lucas told me that these two particular friends have helped him through some dark times in the past, unbeknown to his father,” the Captain informed them. “That is why he was so anxious about asking me. He assumed I might tell him ‘no’ and wasn’t so sure that he wanted to take that chance. He told me that his father doesn’t know much about these friends, and would prefer it to remain that way, for their safety.”

The Captain spoke directly to Tim O’Neill, “I told Lucas that he can speak to you quietly about gaining a secure line to be able to talk to them whenever he is ready, with my full permission.”

Yes, Sir,” Tim nodded in acknowledgement.

However, that may not even happen now, after what happened in his cabin after he left you, Kristin,” Nathan forewarned.

Why not?” Miguel asked before everybody else. They were all thinking that some genuine progress had been made in the right direction.

Lucas had a stroke of inspiration at the last minute about being able to contact them secretly and devised a way without anybody else knowing,” Bridger informed them.

When I first arrived outside his cabin, I thought he was talking to someone inside the room. I must admit I felt like a bit of a dirty rotten stool pigeon, standing there listening to his private conversation without permission.”

Naughty, naughty, Sir,” Krieg accused with a brief laugh, but was aware that the Captain may not have found anything out if he had revealed his presence to the teenager.

I don’t plan on making it a habit, I promise,” Bridger replied. “I am trying to be honest with him from the start, I told him that myself. Finding this out happened by pure accident and wasn’t intentional at all. I trust you will all keep what we have spoken about here today between us only.”

Somehow he has hacked into the computer system of the SeaQuest, and created a secure line for himself through one of his online gaming platforms,” Bridger described.

According to his own words, if he did it correctly, nobody should be able to track his movements. And he uses a secure password and alternate user-name anyway.”

Oh you have to tell us, Captain,” Ben begged.

He won’t be able to tell you, Krieg, otherwise Lucas will know,” Tim pointed out plainly. His words had the desired affect, and they all realised that they would have to keep anything they heard secret and to themselves.”

I will leave you finding that out from Lucas yourself, Ben,” Bridger responded. “He only spoke to one of these friends, not both of them. They all seem to have these alter egos or descriptive user-names for each other. I cannot remember what the other name was now. Unfortunately I didn’t get to learn their real names either.

Ben was already making a mental note to himself. When he had been talking to Lucas in his cabin a few days ago, the teenager had outright refused to reveal any of them. It was unfair that Bridger had found out about at least one without even trying. He wanted to know what this nickname was that the boy used online. Krieg was convinced that he could find out without his friend getting suspicious.

Bridger paused talking for a moment before continuing. “You should have heard the reaction of this friend,” he started to smile. “It was obvious that some time has past since they have seen each other in person, or been able to keep in touch through any other form of communication. Lucas sounded excited to be talking to this person and the rare moment of happiness was evident in his voice.”

For the first few minutes, the friend couldn’t contain the overwhelming anxiety from his voice either as soon as he heard Lucas’ confirm that it was really him talking. He was literally finding it different to string two coherent words together until he accepted that it was Lucas. From what I able to gather, these two friends have been worried for several months about what happened to him. Lucas promised that he would have kept in contact if he had been able to.”

What do you mean by that comment, ‘what happened to him?’ Krieg questioned. Leaving such an open ended statement didn’t bode well.

Bridger’s mood turned a little more sour at this point, with his face showing his displeasure, “Lawrence Wolenczak apparently turned up unannounced at Stanford College suddenly one day and without any prior warning. The last time these friends saw him was when he was being shoved into a car by his father. Lucas was ripped out of there before being given the opportunity to explain to anyone where he was going, or the chance to say goodbye.

Kristin looked like she was about to smash the coffee mug sitting in front of her into little pieces. Being a doctor, she was normally a very caring and kind person, and had endless amount of compassion and patience. In relation to Lawrence Wolenczak, that was changing with everything she was learning about how he had been treating his son. After finding out about the physical abuse the teenager had been receiving only recently, they could only assume that he would have found himself in a similar situation on that occasion.

Here is something else that none of you will be too happy to hear either,” Nathan forewarned. “They were convinced something bad had already happened, because they were searching the daily obituary pages of the online newspapers, expecting to see his name mentioned.”

The sobering expressions on those seated at the table reflected how they felt at hearing such a statement.

We may have to keep on our toes around here in the near future,” Bridger pre-empted. “Lucas didn’t exactly tell this friend yet that he was living on a U.E.O. classified submarine under the ocean. He commented that it was best that they didn’t know his whereabouts for now. He told this friend that he was with people who were trying to help him, but didn’t elaborate further or give out our names or level of involvement.”

That is a positive step in the right direction that he understands that we are doing that,” Miguel remarked.

What are you thinking, Ben?” Kristin asked, seeing the puzzled expression the Morale Officer sitting across the table wore.

“The invitation I made to the movie night…..,” he answered, pausing and thinking a little more before continuing. “When I mentioned what kind of social night I had in mind, he brought up a little more about himself in the form of a story. He told me about a friend who lived with a grandfather, and owned a large collection of old vinyl music records, cassettes and compact discs. There were also a lot of old movies according to him, though he had only seen it once.”

“Maybe this person the Captain heard him talking to over the gaming platform, is the same friend,” Tim added, following Krieg’s train of thought.

“I cannot remember the name of the grandfather, but I guess that is not that important at the moment,” Ben stated.

“This friend that I heard Lucas talking to wanted to make sure that ‘we’ as those people, were taking care of him and could be trusted,” Bridger said in complete seriousness. “From the warning tone in his voice, he was prepared to take action if he was told or thought otherwise,” he added.

Everyone seated at the table were totally floored by that statement. They were all doing their best to make sure that nobody was intent on bringing harm to him, physically or any other way.

“The next question was straight to the point, asking if he was safe,” Bridger informed them.

“That is great that someone else apart from us is not afraid to bring up or ask that question of Lucas,” Ben declared.

“Lucas confirmed that he was safe for now, but he was offered alternative living arrangements by this friend any-time he chooses to leave SeaQuest. For as long as he needs,” the Captain continued. “It may not sound ideal to us right now, but Lucas said he would keep it in mind.

The friend told Lucas that the both of them could be a car in ten minutes to rescue him. He seemed pretty darned determined to do it if Lucas gave the word and wanted them to,” the Captain continued. “Lucas didn’t directly turn him down and say ‘no’ either. He said he would keep it in reserve for another time.”

From the way they were talking, I think we can presume that these friends know a whole lot more about Lawrence Wolenczak than we do at the moment. There was no love lost when his name was briefly mentioned. This person repeated what Lucas has already stated to us, that his father is bad news and is going to be difficult to stop in trying to gain back control of his son’s life.”

Do they know about the abuse that he has been suffering through in the past?” Kristin weighed in.

Yes, they must do on some level, and I assume that is why Lucas was offered rescue and sanctuary,” Bridger answered. “There was a hint of acknowledgement that he had been on the receiving end of some punishment after leaving Stanford campus. He was silent again when it came to giving away any of the details, even to this friend.”

Tim O’Neill was finding it difficult to understand like all of them, how a parent had some to treat their child so terribly. The teachings that he had learned by attending a Catholic Church taught him that children were supposed to be loved by their family. Compared to Lucas, his own childhood and upbringing had been very different.

More information was beginning to emerge about the man, Lawrence Wolenczak and what lengths he had gone in the past. For his son, it was clear that he had ensured that any contact with the rest of the world was monitored and controlled. How much more would they find out about such tactics? And were they ready to hear them?

It wasn’t long before those topics of conversation that were brought up and changed his mood entirely. Any relief he had gained through talking evaporated in an instant,” Bridger revealed, recalling the sound of the teenager’s voice. “Lucas told this friend that these ‘good people’, meaning us, had found out about what his father was doing.”

That must have come as a shock to them?” Krieg voiced. From what they were hearing from the Captain, Lucas was willing to open up a lot more to this friend than he had with any of them. Even Bridger himself.

The Captain nodded his head in acknowledgement of the man’s correct assumptions.

That boy is still berating himself harshly over allowing his darkest secret being found out at all. He even had trouble getting the words out of his mouth. For a brief moment I thought the situation was going to mirror the emotional outburst he had in his cabin in front of me,” Nathan commented. “For him it is a sign of nothing but failure on his part of not being able to distance himself enough away from anybody.”

I would go so far as to say that it is playing on his mind an awful lot. The one true factor that is driving every action and reaction even here on-board. He is scared that his father is going to find out that somebody else has discovered the truth about his home life. I have seen it first-hand. The fear that he is currently carrying around just beneath the surface, is unmistakable and very prevalent.”

Lucas has established quite a few safety measures as best he can, to enable him to cope with his father’s tyranny,” the Captained explained. “Secretly hiding away from any threat is a one such method we found out by accident. No doubt there are probably others that nobody even knows about. There were discussions with this friend of at least one other, that is far more sophisticated in its set up and planning.”

What is it?” Miguel Ortiz asked with intrigue, seeing the same question and interest on the other faces around the table.

Some of them had already seen a demonstration of the teenager’s ability to solve problems. Lucas had already shown a level of intelligence that was extraordinary for someone his age during the short time he had been on-board. Computers, language, technology, advanced programming, the list was already impressive. What other skills did he possess?

Bridger answered with another question of his own, “With the training that you have all received as personnel aboard this vessel, and as members of the military service in general, I am sure you are familiar with the ‘defence readiness condition’ alert system that was devised by the armed services?”

You mean the Defcon system?” Ford queried, not sure what that had to do with Lucas and his unnamed friend.

Yes, Commander, that is precisely what I mean,” Bridger said with a grin. “Lucas has developed some kind of comparable system for these friends. From what little I understand about it so far, it correlates directly with how much danger he is at any one time. I don’t have details yet of all the individual levels, but as of right now, he told this friend that he is at Defcon Level Four.”

Level Four?” Kristin spoke up, with a puzzled expression. Like Jonathan Ford, she was trying to draw a line of reference of how such a system related directly to their youngest crew member.

Doctor Westphalen, the system that the crew of this vessel adhere to states or prescribes that there are five graduated levels of readiness for the military,” Tim O’Neill filled in for her. “It starts as Level Five, which is least severe and worsens to Level One which is most severe.”

I know there is such a system, but how does that involve Lucas?” Kristin commented, knowing the bespectacled man had meant well with his reply. Being a civilian doctor, those in the military downplayed what knowledge she had about their operations and regulations. She didn’t always agree with them, and certainly wasn’t afraid to voice her opinion when they encroached on her staff or their duties.

Lucas severed the connection to the internex a few minutes after declaring this level,” Bridger told them. “From that moment onwards, all communication and chatter between them is to be in some kind of secret code. And he will contact them, not the other way around.”

A secret code that we may never be able to properly decipher,” Ortiz pointed out. “If it is anything like any of those computer languages that he mentioned while figuring out the coding problem to my station, then we are all sunk.”

I think Lucas only brought up the secret code because he still doesn’t feel safe from his father’s reach,” Nathan added. “The assurances that I have personally given him haven’t been enough.”


Ben Krieg made himself sit up a little straighter, taking on a determined stance. “Thank you Captain, for new pieces of information. It is great to hear that Lucas has past friends who are willing to help him and have done so previously. As for myself, I need to be doing something positive now, here on-board, as one of his newer friends. Not waiting for someone to come and rescue him away from here.”

What do you want to do, Ben?” Bridger queried. “I think you have been doing a very fine job so far. You have been his confidante and gained his trust to a certain degree already in such a short space of time.”

With your permission of course, Sir, tonight I am going to try the social event route,” Krieg explained, ignoring the Captain’s praise. “Instead of a movie night though, just a little impromptu party. Some snacks and finger foods to eat, and some non-alcoholic drinks. A little music and a positive but relaxed atmosphere. That should eliminate any awkwardness like what happened last night.”

Do you think he would be willing to attend?” Kristin asked. She liked what the young Lieutenant was trying to achieve, but after seeing the teenager last night and this morning, perhaps Ben was being overly optimistic.

I am hoping to appeal to his better nature that it is not just for his benefit,” Ben answered. “Other than that, pure intentional and unashamed begging on my part.”

The group gathered around the table laughed at that comment from the Morale Officer. They were aware of how Krieg used charm to persuade others into doing things or co-operating with his unusual plans.

Actually, you may not have to do that, Ben,” Bridger commented. “When I finally did alert Lucas to my presence outside his cabin door last night, I mentioned to him about skipping out on your movie night. He wasn’t going to admit to what caused him to leave so suddenly, but he did feel guilty enough about not telling you. I hinted to him that he may not be able to turn down your next invitation so easily.”

Well, that’s settled then,” Ben declared with renewed energy. “Everybody seated here is invited of course, including both of you Commander Ford, and Doctor Westphalen.

I think I will still use a little restraint on the number of guests invited and keep them low. I am sure Don won’t object to turning out a few platters of eats that will tempt our young friend.”

I can supply some of the background music if you want, Krieg?” Tim O’Neill offered.

Sure Tim, that would be great,” Ben said with thanks. “Turn up in the recreation room a few minutes beforehand to set up. Other than that, the atmosphere will be low-key and without routine. Just a chance to mingle, talk and share some good food for a couple of hours. That way, there is no heavy onus on anybody to do anything specific, but to turn up and be themselves.”

I am heading down to my science department, Ben, but if you need any other assistance before tonight, you can approach me at any time,” Kristin advised. “I have quite a lot of work that I want to achieve before then.”

The group began packing up their trays and crockery, planning to leave and attend to their own duties for the day.

Bridger told Jonathan Ford that he would be along in a few minutes, but was sharing a last minute conversation with Kristin.

Tim and Miguel were discussing genres of music for the night’s promised activities as they left the mess hall together to start their day shifts. Miguel offered a few of his own pieces from his own collection of music for O’Neill to use.


Ben watched everybody leave, intent on staying long enough to talk to the Head Chef. Grabbing his tray, he proceeded to approach the serving counter.

Just returning these, Don,” Krieg shouted out to the man.

The breakfast line up had slowed a little. There were still hot dishes on offer for last minute stragglers or late risers. The avocados on toast had gone down a treat, and there were none left. There was still a healthy amount of scrambled egg with bacon pieces available.

Don the chef, wiped his hands on his apron, walking over to collect the tray, but wondering why Krieg had decided to do it this morning. Normally the guy left his tray on the tables for someone else to clear away like most of the crew on-board.

That will be a first from you. Keep that up and I will think that you are up to no good,” Don commented. “Lucas is proving to be a good influence on you in the good manners department, Ben.”

Now that hurts, Don,” Krieg fired back in his own defence. “I am doing you a favour.”

In return for…………?” the Chef gauged, knowing there was a reason behind it. “With you doing the asking, I can’t help but be suspicious.”

About what?” Ben countered. “I came here to return my breakfast tray, and ask if you wouldn’t mind helping me out for later on this evening.”

Here it comes……,” Don pre-empted, waiting to hear the man’s request.

I am having a little get together tonight, for say no more than ten people. In the recreation room at about six o’clock,” Krieg explained. “I wanted to know if you would make up some finger food platters. I would be needing some sodas and other drinks to wash everything down with. Nothing too fancy or complicated, but a nice assortment to go around.”

And you are only just telling me this now!” Don challenged, looking down at his watch. The number of people didn’t sound too many, but still. “A little warning in future would be nice, Krieg,” the chef proclaimed.

Ben knew that he asking a lot and not allowing a lot of preparation time, “This isn’t for me this time. I am organising a little social night that will include Lucas.”

That who the food is for?” the chef asked. He was tempted to ask Ben what he had done to the kid to try and make up for. The chef knew the man was making some genuine efforts where the teenager was concerned, so he refrained from bringing the matter up.

Some music, some eats and a little relaxed talking, nothing more. It will be for everybody, but I am hoping to lure him there a little later with an open invitation,” Ben answered. “He told the Captain that he was going back to his cabin when he left here. I hope it was to get a little more sleep, so I will ask him later when he is awake.”

He did look tired when he came in here, even before the Captain arrived,” Don remarked. “Alright Krieg, I will help you out and supply the platters and drinks. We don’t know everything he likes yet, but I will put together a few samples that I hope he will find tempting. There will be enough for everybody. You are going to owe me.”

Thank you,” Ben said cheerfully, as he turned and started to leave, heading off to find and planning to speak to Bridger. “I will definitely owe you,” he added as he exited the doors.


Arriving back in her science departments, Kristin was met by one of her senior staff members who was brimming with excitement.

Doctor Westphalen, what you have achieved in the last few days is tremendous, and I know everybody down here is very thankful for your extra efforts and dedication,” the woman stated.

Thank you Jane, for your sentiments but what are you talking about?” Kristin asked politely. Her duties over the past week weren’t out of the ordinary or anything that should be deemed as ground-breaking. If she wanted to be brutally honest, the current pace of testing was behind schedule. And some areas had not received anywhere near the amount of attention that was planned.

All the labelling you did,” the woman said, her expression turning one of confusion. At first the technician thought that the doctor may been downplaying her role, but now she noticed that Kristin really didn’t understand what her words of praise were for. “Both laboratories, one and two. All natural specimens and all the geology samples have been been carefully named with all the correct genus and common names.”

All of them?” Kristin said with more than a little surprise. That was a task she had been hoping to achieve over the next several weeks. To hear now that it had been carried out was very strange. Nobody had been authorised or assigned yet to carry out such a task, because they were all busy with more pressing work demands.

I am sorry, I assumed that you did it,” Jane replied. “I don’t know who else would have done it.”

Walking with the young woman into the first laboratory, “Show me what has been done,” Kristin instructed, wanting to view first-hand what the young woman was pleased about.

Gazing at each individual specimen in turn, she could see what had been done. The science department had made a great deal of progress since she had given Lucas a tour through these laboratories. A number of slides had now been prepared for the non-living specimens, dead coral samples, rock and sediments.

Looking intently at the slides, she could see the labelling that had taken place. With each being hand-written in very small and neat print, she now knew the identity of the person who had done it.

Lucas told me that he was almost finished working on the software that I asked him about, but he didn’t mention anything to me about taking on any of this work,” Kristin said with gratitude in her voice. She could guess fairly accurately at how long it may have taken him to do them all. Where he had found that extra time she didn’t know.

The next laboratory is done as well,” Jane informed her. “All of the animal, plant and micro-organisms.”

Kristin was shocked again, and exited the first laboratory, only to enter the second. She had heard the woman mention that both sections had been completed, but it took looking about now for her to fully comprehend just how much work the teenager had done without saying a word. She hadn’t seem him down here during the day when she had been working. How many hours had he been doing this without her team noticing?

The young man that is staying on-board here,” Kristin said as she saw that Jane had not put a face to the name. “He has done all of this, I recognize his hand-writing. I must thank him as soon as I see him.” She remembered the game they had played and enjoyed together testing each other’s knowledge. Lucas had gone above and beyond what she would ordinarily expect and put those skills into practical use.

Well he has done a great job,” Jane applauded. “It will make a big difference to us down here. I hope you will pass along thanks on our behalf.”

I plan to make sure that he receives full credit for what he has done,” Kristin assured her. “I expect him to be down here a little more frequently so you will be able to pass along your thanks directly to him. Though he may act too shy at first. He is still finding his way around down here and the rest of the vessel.”

I will remember that if I see him. I will go back to my own duties now,” Jane stated, leaving the doctor alone with her own thoughts.

Kristin assumed that he would be sleeping in his cabin after leaving the mess hall, so talking to him would have to wait until he was awake. She would be passing on all of the praise and comments being made by her staff.


Walking through the corridor on his way past the moon pool, the Captain stopped and did a double-take when he spotted a familiar figure sitting on the backless stool, petting Darwin.

I thought you were going to get some more sleep this morning?” Bridger brought up as he came up alongside the teenager.

Sleeping is over-rated,” Lucas declared with a half grin, trying to downplay the man’s concerns. The truth was he had returned to his cabin, but sleep still wouldn’t come naturally. The short doze across the table this morning had been a mistake that he hadn’t been able to replicate. His mind was on overdrive and proving hard to shut down.

What are you and Darwin planning to do today?” Nathan asked, genuinely interested in the progress the teenager was making with the vocorder program. He had been maintaining his own method of communicating with the dolphin on his island and thought that well ahead of its time. This new concept invented by Lucas who was so young was fascinating.

Mainly revision work today,” Lucas replied, playing with various buttons on the controller. “I still cannot get into the tank to swim and play with him yet,” he added glumly.

Directly any further comments away about his stitches, the boy changed subjects entirely, “I did go by your cabin before coming here to look at your new furniture.”

Oh, what did you think?” Bridger questioned. “Ben and I struggled getting one of the armrests into the correct alignment. Eventually we got it to work. I think they look great. I haven’t had the chance to try them out.”

The sofa looks comfortable and large enough, but rather plain and boring in the colour department if you ask me,” Lucas answered. “Not that I have a whole lot of experience with furniture or décor to base that opinion on.”

Well boring and plain suits me just fine, thank you,” the Captain said with stoicism. “I told Commander Ford that I didn’t have any preference for the fabric or the colour, so you will have to take that up with Ben.”

That is alright then, I will tell him that he is plain and boring,” the boy said with a small laugh.

Did someone mention my name?” Krieg asked as he approached the moon pool. The man was carrying a clipboard in his hands. “I thought you were supposed to be sleeping?”

Bridger knew what Ben was there to do, and didn’t want to be seen putting any pressure on the teenager’s decision. “I am headed back to the Bridge, but I will talk some more with you later.”

The teenager ignored Ben’s question about sleeping entirely. It was the second time within less than half an hour that someone had brought up the same subject. It was different for him, and he couldn’t do it on command just because it was the expected thing to be doing at a certain time.

The furniture in the Captain’s quarters, I took a peek before coming here” Lucas told him with a little teasing in his voice. “When I brought up about the fabric colour choices, he mentioned that you were responsible for selecting and ordering them. That is why the colours are plain and boring.”

That’s it, you are off the invitation list,” Ben taunted back, using the comment as a casual way of introducing why he was standing there.

What invitation list?” the teenager questioned. “What are you planning now?”

I am having another get together with a few of the crew tonight,” Ben started to say, but saw the immediate change of expression on the boy’s face. “Don’t worry, it won’t be another movie night I promise.”

I am sorry I left there without telling you, it wasn’t you,” Lucas apologised, unable to mask his guilt well enough. “Please believe that it wasn’t anything you did.”

There was never any obligation for last night,” Ben said with some honesty, not wanting to bring up what Tim had witnessed. “On the next movie night, you can pick what we watch.”

Thanks for understanding,” Lucas responded, trying to deflect any further discussion on the topic, he asked a question of his own. “What is tonight supposed to be all about?”

By agreeing to come tonight, you will go some way towards restoring your good name in my books….,” Ben joked, seeing a hint of a smile from the teenager in return. He dropped the act and continued, “Tonight isn’t about anything specific. A very small group of people, mingling with some music, talking and generally just having a good time.”

Ben….,” Lucas said, giving a tired sigh. He didn’t want to sound ungrateful, and Bridger was right about owing him, but he didn’t know if he had another social night in him today. He looked back at Krieg’s grin and expectant face, and felt worse because he couldn’t give a concrete yes or no.

Krieg could see the reaction, and the temptation to say ‘no’ on the tip of his tongue, “Hey, no obligation remember, just like yesterday. Come if you want to, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t.” Although the morale officer was silently hoping that he would agree.

I will be there,” Lucas agreed, but didn’t give any other assurances. “Oh and tomorrow I can start to give you a demonstration of that software that I designed for you,” he added, completely changing the topic of discussion again.

You finished it already?” Krieg said with surprise. When talking to the teenager only a couple of days ago, he had mentioned that he was working on it, but it had only been half done at that point.

All done, and you can start using it once I show you how,” Lucas confirmed, pleased that he had been able to do something for Ben that would make his job easier. “Today, I want to keep working with Darwin for a bit longer.”

No sooner had he made the comment though, the dolphin swam away in the opposite direction, headed out of the moon pool tank.

Or maybe not,” he remarked. The distraction of talking to the Captain and then Ben had taken away the animal’s co-operation on working with the teenager and his vocabulary for now.

Don’t take it personally, Darwin probably had a better offer of a fish,” he said with amusement. I had better get back to work too,” Ben commented, knowing that there was some set up work to do in the recreation room in a few hours.

The teenager gave a small grin in return. For the next few hours, he would have to find something else to keep himself occupied. To be honest, any motivation to start anything complicated had disappeared when his aquatic friend had left.

Krieg was counting on tonight’s activities to keep the teenager’s attention a little longer than the previous night. He was banking on the presence of the Captain and Doctor Westphalen as being the back up plan to help with that.


By the time five o’clock in the afternoon came around, the recreation room was a hive of activity, with Ben Krieg being right in the middle of the chaos. Tim and Miguel were getting the music organized, still deciding between them which genre to play. Both had bought quite an impressive repertoire to utilise. They weren’t sure what would appeal to everybody in the room at the same time.

The food tables had been set up, and Don had brought in a number of tempting platters of finger foods. He had slapped Krieg’s hand away on a number of occasions, telling him to wait until everybody had arrived. The chef himself was asked at the last minute to join them if he wanted to, but respectfully declined. There wasn’t anything on the table that was unusual or too fancy.

The Captain and Doctor Westphalen arrived almost an hour later together, when everything was almost in place. Ben had done a terrific job at setting up the casual night with not a whole lot of time to do so. Commander Ford was one of the last to arrive, dressed in casual off-hours attire.

Bridger walked over to Ben, wanting to ask where the last guest was, but he was beaten to the punch before being able to ask anything.

Lucas was reluctant to agree when I asked him,” Ben commented, “But he said he would come.”

No sooner had he made the statement, Lucas walked through the door of the recreation room, a small smile on his face as he greeted Tim and Miguel. His expression changed to a slight frown at listening to the soft, gentle music playing in the room. It wouldn’t normally be something he would choose, but kept silent about its lack of appeal to him.

Hi,” he said simply to everyone, standing beside the Captain. Kristin was beside Nathan. Everyone exchanged pleasantries, but the lack of spontaneous conversation was evident.

Lucas had taken a hot a shower, hoping the steam would revitalise him and help him to stay awake a little longer. Before turning up to the recreation room, he had been working on Ben’s inventory program back in his cabin, and adding a few last minute touches. After telling Ben that it was ready to put into action, he wanted to double check that it was the case.

By now, he was starting to feel very lethargic. He didn’t want to fall asleep in front of the small gathering like he had done this morning in the mess hall. At the moment, with the messages that were being exchanged between his brain and the rest of his body, that was a distinct possibility.

When Bridger had challenged him near the moon pool he hadn’t felt as tired as he did right now. He was hoping to get away with showing up to apologise to Ben for the movie night, but nothing more. He had never been a social butterfly, and wasn’t interested in being one tonight. An hour should be enough, less than two in mixed company was his goal.

Glad you could make it, Lucas,” Ben declared with enthusiasm. When he surveyed where everybody was standing in the room though, he didn’t like what he was seeing.

Ben swiftly grabbed a cold drink, pushed it into teenager’s hand, “Come on, everybody here has met each other before, this is supposed to be a party, not a nun convention. There is a great big sofa over there to sit on and talk. Some of you go over there,” he instructed. “Other people can stay here near the food tables. We are not mannequins, spontaneous and embarrassing dancing is permitted and encouraged.”

This brought a burst of laughter from the teenager, “To this music, Krieg? You must be kidding. Thankfully I am not much of a dancer anyway.”

Captain Bridger and Jonathan Ford grinned at the energy that Ben was bringing to the event, enough for everybody all on his own. In keeping with his wishes, they moved towards the large sofas, happy to join in some conversation.

Just remember gentlemen,” Krieg warned his two senior officers. “The same rules apply tonight, that there will be no talk of work inside these walls. They are meant for you too, Doc,” he directed at Kristin.

I will be on my best behaviour,” the red-headed woman promised, picking up one of the drinks, and trying to be a little more involved in the social atmosphere Ben was trying to create.

Kristin was trying to figure a way to talk to Lucas and thank him for his efforts in her science department, but with the teenager was still standing next to Ben near the table of food. Adhering to his wishes, and taking into account the teenager’s quiet mood, she doubted that he would appreciate the spotlight. She would have to wait to talk to him on his own another time.

Ben glanced over at Lucas, seeing him standing near the buffet table and surveying what was on offer. There was something else though that caught his attention. The boy appeared almost apprehensive and anxious, looking sideways in either direction, watching for anybody being too close. There must have be a reason for it, but Krieg couldn’t think of a viable answer.

You can try anything you like,” Krieg encouraged, grabbing a plate himself and placing more than a few morsels onto it, hoping the boy would follow and at least try some. “Some of these look great. I must remind myself to tell Don about what a fantastic job he did on the food.”

Lucas gave a small grin, and picked up a plate too, hoping to direct Ben’s attention away from the nervousness bubbling beneath the surface. In the back of his mind though something else caused the half smirk to disappear very quickly. He almost dropped the first piece he selected, and had to alter his grip at the last second to mask his clumsiness.

You can never make them understand!’ echoed back as his mind silently but harshly admonished himself.

Tim and Miguel joined the two of them, grabbing a plate each and perusing what was laid out. They were impressed with the selection as well, making a few appreciative noises at the smells and visual display.

How come there isn’t any chips for dipping and guacamole, Krieg?” Tim asked. “You keep telling Ortiz and me that you are some kind of connoisseur for Mexican cuisine, but I don’t see any of that reflected here on the table.”

Don must have played it safe tonight with the menu he gave us. You can both blame Lucas here for that little omission from tonight’s treats,” he poked in fun at the teenager. “Turns out that our young friend here is allergic to them. I already told him that my Mexican themed nights are ruined.

Lucas coped the jibe without being offended, but didn’t elaborate further.

I am allergic to some foods too, Lucas,” Tim admitted. “Some seafoods, not all of them. In the past, I have had trouble identifying which ones affect me and which ones don’t.”

Carrots for me. I usually break out into itchy and embarrassing hives,” Miguel interjected with slight annoyance. There had often been an disagreement between his mother and grandmother at home when he was growing up. His mother knew of the allergy, his grand-mother didn’t believe that they were the caused a problem.

None of you people are going to be fun at any of my parties,” Ben huffed with mock indignation. He was pleased that Tim and Miguel had shared their food allergies, so that Lucas wouldn’t feel like he was the only one being singled out.


With a few uneaten pieces of food on his plate and what remained of his drink, Lucas took them away from the table, towards the sofas. He didn’t know what Ben and the others wanted to talk casually about and no interesting topics were coming to mind. Tim had gone to change the music to something with a little more beat to it, but kept the volume low enough that it wasn’t being intrusive.

Ben and Miguel were still by the food table, exchanging a few recipes that they had tried in the past. Krieg liked spicy food, as did Ortiz, so there was a lot of common ground between them.

Sitting down, fatigue was washing over Lucas in waves, settling in like a heavy curtain. He was surprised that the Captain and Kristin hadn’t noticed it when he came into the room. Even Ben hadn’t said a word when they were standing near the food table. He doubted he was hiding how tired he was very well from anybody at this point.

Bridger offered a smile when the teenager sat close by. He was pleased to have the company. Kristin and Jonathan Ford were talking about vacations they had taken to various places. Both of them lived and breathed their jobs, even outside of their normal hours. Any minute now one of them was going to stray into work related territory.

Lucas was the first to make a random statement, but with his defences down, he didn’t realise that he was allowing the person listening to learn more about himself. “This is very different to from the investment parties that I am used to attending. At least this looks like real food.” He placed one of the samples into his mouth.

Been to a few of those type of events in the past?” Bridger asked cautiously, noting the mistake that had been made, but waiting to receive a little more detail. They probably weren’t that much different to the meetings he had attended with the Naval brass over the years. Plenty of food and refreshments provided, but usually strictly all military talk and very little achieved from any of them.

Lucas had finished the food, “That was nice enough. The food that the events I was forced to go to was often too rich for my simple taste. Stupid things like scraping dead snails out of their shell with the end of a toothpick, raw fish on tiny little crackers and Caviar served on small triangles of toast,” he added with disgust.

‘Not that I would have been allowed to try any of them anyway’ Lucas conceded miserably to himself as memories started to creep into his psyche.

Business meetings I suspect?” Bridger assumed. The part that of the boy’s speech that he had picked up on was ‘forced to attend’ in addition to the other disapproval voiced from Lucas.

Mostly endless hours of boredom spent with a bunch of stuffed-shirt people who didn’t speak a word of English. Japanese, Korean and a few other nationalities,” Lucas answered. “I wouldn’t recommend going to them to anyone, and there was never any good food and only high priced alcohol flowing from the bar.”

Nathan assumed from those admissions, that Lucas may be capable of speaking more foreign languages than French. How these people were associated with his father, Lawrence Wolenczak and his World Power empire was pure speculation.

Lucas finished the last two pieces of food on his plate, and drained the last of his soda. Tim was filling his own plate at the buffet table, and tasting a few of the samples.

The Captain had been drawn into the conversation with Kristin and Commander Ford, and was currently turned away from him. Miguel and Ben were over where the music was pumping out from, and arguing over the next choices.

The teenager had promised Ben to turn up, and as far as he was concerned, that was what he had done. He had even eaten some of the food, and mingled as much as he felt was necessary. The sofa he was sitting on was inviting, but he didn’t want the same situation as this morning in the mess hall. He needed to leave before he fell flat on his face in front of them. Somewhere in his not too distant future, he saw another much larger face to face apology going to Ben for spoiling another of his social nights.

Thankfully, nobody had glanced in his direction, or saw him stand up from the sofa. Lucas surprised himself with how smoothly his exit was.

A couple of uninterrupted hours of sleep, free from nightmares and current negative thoughts was what he was aiming for. Walking down the corridor away from the recreation room, he headed back to Mammal Engineering and his cabin.


Bridger turned around to say something to Lucas about what Jonathan had said, but noted that the sofa to his left was now vacant. There was an empty cup and plate nearby.

Looking about the room to spot the teenager, there was a new sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.

Oh Ben,” the Captain called out, standing up and taking another glance at the faces around the room. Everybody who was supposed to be in the room was except for one.

Krieg came walking over to Bridger, about to ask why he had been summoned, but Kristin spoke first from behind him.

Where is Lucas?” she asked. Jonathan Ford and her had been enjoying their casual exchange, but had lost track of the time for a few minutes. They had seen the teenager talking to the Captain and sharing a story, but hadn’t heard what they were talking about.

Lucas is missing again?” Ben said with dismay, looking about the expansive room himself. He noted those few people who were present, but the one face he was searching for was not amongst them. “He managed to slip out just as silently as the last time.”

He appeared to be calm when he was talking to you Nathan, not more than a few minutes ago,” Kristin interjected. “I saw him get food from the table at least once before coming down and sitting on the sofa.

Lucas was eating some of the delicious samples that Don provided for tonight,” Bridger reported. “There wasn’t much on his plate, but he did try some of them. After that he was sharing with me some of the experiences he has had with the business parties that his father has hosted. There weren’t too many similarities and according to the strenuous dislike and opposition coming through in his words, they were events he would rather not be associated with.

You know, he is starting to give me a complex concerning the lack of my ability to keep or maintain his attention during any of my social events,” Ben tried to joke, but his attempt at humour fell very short of the mark. He hazarded a guess that there was much more going on with the teenager, and suspected more than just bad memories had been plaguing him for a number of days.

The small group of people were now gathered around the sofa, wondering what may have triggered the teenager to react badly. They had been fairly careful with their topics of conversation, but that may not have been enough on this occasion. Trying to pick up on his mood was still proving to be quite difficult, despite their best combined efforts.

Please everybody wait here, I will go and see if I can find out the problem and what caused him to leave,” the Captain requested, putting his own drink aside.


Bridger made his way down to Mammal Engineering trying to go back over the short amount of time Lucas had spent in the recreation room in an attempt to identify something that may have made him feel uncomfortable. The teenager had inadvertently provided a few small, select bits of information about the business events that his father had hosted at their home, and how boring they were.

The teenager had revealed that most of the guests were foreign, but had not shown any signs of being upset that Nathan had been able to tell at that point. Disgusted and irritated about the length of time he had spent at those events, and the choice of menu, but he had not sounded distressed or strained. Nothing had sounded particularly out of place, but alarm bells were definitely ringing that he had chosen to leave again suddenly for a second night.

On his way past the moon pool, he had contemplated heading down to the science department first. That is where Lucas had gone first last night, looking for sanctuary in Kristin’s domain. This time he took a punt about where the teenager had headed to after the recreation room, hoping that he hadn’t found another designated hiding place yet.

Approaching the small cabin, he paused for a moment, pondering what mood or frame of mind he would find the teenager in. The accusation of checking up on him again without a valid reason could very well be coming his way. If that was the only thing bothering Lucas, then he could accept that criticism.

Knocking on the hatch door to the small cabin, he waited patiently for a few moments, before turning the handle and taking a chance by entering. He was pleased to see that the occupant was at least inside. He wasn’t so sure whether or not he would be on the receiving end of some words of denial that there was a problem and a very closed off attitude. Looking across the small cabin teenager, he now knew the reason for him leaving Ben’s party early.

There was no loud music playing at present, but perhaps that had been an omission on his part and he had forgotten to turn it on this time. Bridger sighed to himself once he was standing close enough to take a good look at Lucas’ face. The boy was currently laying on his bed, on his left side, sound asleep. Apparently too tuckered out to acknowledge the knock at his door.

The teenager had not heard the door open, or anybody enter the cramped space of his room. From previous observations, it was unusual for his senses not to be in a state of heightened alert. They couldn’t be at that level though, unless you were taking reasonable care of yourself, and that included good food and enough rest. Bridger doubted that Lucas was achieving either of those things in the correct quantities since arriving on-board.

The fatigue that had been on display in the mess hall early this morning before breakfast, had returned ten-fold this evening. Getting through the day purely on coffee fumes and stubbornness, the boy was over-tired and worn out. Nathan had seen him working by the moon pool with Darwin, and spoken to him before Ben had shown up. There had been a comment or two made about him carrying out other tasks during the day.

They may have been acting like concerned friends, but the Captain had the impression that they were missing meaningful clues, and bypassing some of the self-explanatory signs. They were taking the time, but failing to come up with the right answers. None of them could claim to be making great crossroads or being successful by looking carefully beneath the surface.

Then another reason for the Lucas’ tiredness crept into the back of Bridger’s mind and presented as a valid alternative. His eating schedule was still somewhat irregular, and his sleeping pattern unpredictable and hard to nail down. Maybe he was coming down with a virus and getting sick and didn’t want anybody to notice, especially Kristin.

Nathan didn’t want to disturb the boy from the sleep he obviously needed, but he wanted to make sure there wasn’t something more sinister starting to brew that they should know about. Very gently, he laid the palm of his hand on the teenager’s forehead, checking for the tell-tale sign of a fever.

The Captain was relieved when the temperature of his skin felt normal, without any heat present. A more plausible reason for Lucas leaving Ben’s party early could be that he was worried about dozing off in front of other people. Wanting to avoid any embarrassment in front of the few crew members he was in contact with on a daily basis.

Lucas must have felt someone’s presence in the room on a subconscious level, and the hand, because he began to stir at the intrusion. Bridger was rewarded with a sliver of blue appearing from beneath barely raised eyelids. Tired eyes, opened and drooped twice, before closing one final time. There was no fever, but Nathan felt a shiver run through his body. It was clear to the Captain that the boy was merely exhausted.

Thankfully, this time around he had not scared Lucas to death by disturbing him. The boy’s half-hearted attempt to wake was tough to watch, and a sign that something else was happening right under their very noses. Instead of lifting his hand away too quickly and losing the contact, he carded it softly through the boy’s hair. The tactile gesture only bringing about regret that he needed to use such a method in order to gain a truthful, non-verbal answer to the question of whether he was sick. Bridger intended the action to be soothing and would help ease him back to sleep with an unspoken apology.

Bridger watched him silently, growing more concerned by what they were not able to see going on internally, ‘Why are you doing this to yourself?’

The small cabin was still much too cold for his liking, thankfully this time, one of the blankets that Ben had delivered was hanging over the foot end of the bed. He reached for the fluffy polyester fabric and gently spread it out over the youth. Lucas gave a contented sigh at the additional warmth and buried his face deeper into the fabric of the pillows.

‘What are you not telling us?’ was the unspoken question he wanted to voice out loud. Nathan was fairly certain if he was awake and more alert, Lucas would pull away from his harmless action with suspicion and unfamiliarity.


The Captain returned to the recreation room, “I am sorry, Ben, but you can scratch any further participation from Lucas for the next several hours and the remainder of the evening.”

They were surprised that Nathan had returned so quickly, especially after assuming that Lucas may be needing someone to talk to or listen to what was bothering him. Bridger was the only one that the teenager would allow to provide any level of comfort and support.

Too exhausted to even wake when I knocked on the door and entered his room. He is sound asleep in his cabin,” Bridger informed them. For a few minutes, I was worried he might be coming down with a virus, but he didn’t have a temperature. He couldn’t even wake himself up to protest or object when I checked.”

Tim O’Neill looked down at the time on his watch, “But it is barely seven o’clock at night?” he stated.

He looked exhausted this morning in the mess hall,” Kristin replied. “I should have checked up on him a little more throughout the day and made sure that he was taking better care of himself. His stitches and bruising needed checking again, so the opportunity was there to me to use subversion to achieve that. Unfortunately there was only so much hovering I could do before tempers were at risk of fraying.”

Your not to blame, Kristin,” the Captain replied to the doctor. “None of us are. Despite the positive inroads we have already made collectively, the majority of the time Lucas is still keeping the doors to his world firmly closed.”

I have a hunch about what has been going on over the past several days,” Ben spoke up. All eyes within the small group turned towards him, keen to hear his suggestions and ideas.

You know what might be going on?” Bridger questioned. Shedding light on the problem would be most welcome. Ben was probably the most observant of any of them when it came to Lucas and noting his actions and moods. The boy had even shared a few of his angry and unhappy thoughts with the morale officer.

Until now, that is all it has been based on a few little things that I have witnessed,” Krieg answered. “With your permission, I would like to conduct a little covert operation later tonight. Even as tired as you describe Lucas being now, I doubt his sleep will last long.

It may take a little altering of my day shift roster for tomorrow, Sir,” Ben noted, “I will watch his nocturnal activities for a few hours without drawing attention to myself.

Can that be done at such short notice, Commander?” Nathan asked Ford in relation to the duty roster.

That can be arranged, Captain,” Ford confirmed. “The lieutenant can be given some extra time off during the day tomorrow to catch up on his own sleep.”

Tomorrow morning, around breakfast time, let us all meet early in the Ward Room,” Krieg suggested. “I will make sure there is plenty of hot coffee on hand.”

Commander Hitchcock will be on the Bridger at that time, Captain, so she would be capable of maintaining control as the crews commence their shift change. She would also be able to cover the time that you and I would be absent,” Ford explained. “I can inform her later in the day about what was discussed to keep her in the loop so to speak.”

Does anybody else have any objections to this plan of action?” Bridger asked, looking over at Tim and Miguel. He didn’t like them sacrificing their free time so early in the morning. From what Jonathan said about the roster and such an unorthodox method of surveillance, he was grateful for Ben’s input about what might work.

I will make the time whenever it needs to be, Nathan,” Kristin declared. For Lucas she was willing to be as flexible as necessary. She was apprehensive about how the teenager would react if he spotted Ben following him around.

Miguel was already thinking the same as Doctor Westphalen, “I don’t envy the position you are going to be in Krieg when Lucas finds out what you are doing.”

Same here, Ben, but I don’t have a problem with turning up early before my shift begins,” Tim O’Neill replied.

Thank you all for your co-operation,” Bridger said sincerely.

If I fail and get it wrong, then my actions will only be a reflection on me, not anybody else. I am willing to take any flack from Lucas that may be headed my way if that happens,” Ben said in answer to their concerns about his shadowing activity being discovered.

I will either be able to confirm or deny my theory of what the problem is with our young friend. However be warned, that if I am proven right, then none of us are going to be happy with what I have to to report,” he gave as a final remark.


Twenty minutes before nine o’clock at night, Ben Krieg and the Captain were having a discussion near the moon pool.

Are you all set? Do you need anything else to carry this out?” Bridger asked. “I am about to head to my cabin in a few minutes to read.” It was going to be difficult not to be involved in Ben’s plans, but he wanted to give the Lieutenant the best chance possible for this to work in their favour. With more than one person involved, they would probably both be discovered, and gain nothing for their efforts except an unhappy and distrusting teenager.

No almost set, Sir,” Ben answered. “I don’t really have a concrete point of attack in mind. Mostly I will be guided by what Lucas himself is doing, or wants to do. I just have to make sure that I stay out of sight and earshot. “I know your nerves are probably going to be on edge, but try and relax. I am doing this for him because I want to help Lucas, not set him against us.”

Thank you,” Bridger said with genuine gratitude. He was thinking again that Ben definitely had his heart in the right place when it came to the teenager’s well-being.

Kristin reported that everybody in the science department should have finished their day’s work and left the area within the next half an hour,” the Captain told him. “She didn’t schedule anybody to do testing or sampling work tonight. It is going to be difficult for her not to check up on the both of you, but she understands the reasons why this is a one person operation.”

Commander Ford gave me a run down on which crew members will be around tonight in specific areas for the night shift,” Krieg stated. “Tim and Miguel will have their usual day-shifts scheduled after the meeting in the Ward Room tomorrow morning. Both have offered any assistance during the night should I need it.”

That goes double for me,” Bridger asserted. “If you need anything from me or if Lucas decides he wants to talk at any time tonight, you know where my door is. Good Luck.”

I have one more stop to make on the Bridge,” Ben commented. “Katie is still there on duty, and I want to talk to her before my observing begins.”

Ben made his way towards the Bridge with a confidence to his footsteps.

Good evening, Commander,” Krieg addressed Katie Hitchcock cheerfully, knowing that the tone of voice he was using would bug her to no end.

Jonathan Ford told me you wanted to see me about something before my shift ended, Lieutenant,” she said in an authoritative voice.

Then he should have told you that it is for a very good reason,” Ben countered. “I want you to give me the tablet device that you use to monitor the progress Lucas is making on repairing the door locks.”

I don’t really have any objection,” Katie replied with some puzzlement. “Why can’t you ask Lucas for the one that I gave him?”

I want to use it in the Ward Room tomorrow morning as part of the demonstration that I am setting up for the Captain and other crew members who will be present,” Ben answered. “I know you will be here so that Ford and Bridger can attend. I can’t ask Lucas for the one you gave him, or he will become suspicious about what I am going to do tonight.”

Lucas has been doing some good work, Ben,” Katie said in defence of the teenager. Her opinion had completely changed about his skills over the past few days.

Even she had to admit to being surprised that he had been working solidly and without complaint for a couple of days on the assigned task. When the Captain was trying to involve the teenager more into the day to day activities of the vessel, she felt a little ashamed about judging his ability based on his age. Since then she had seen first-hand for herself that he was quite capable of tackling some of the more complex computer bugs that had been plaguing them recently.

Commander Ford had him work on Miguel Ortiz’s station when it was showing signs of malfunctioning. After offering to rewrite the coding and uploading the patch, the station continued to operate within normal parameters. Lucas had saved her team from needing to take on more additional work when they didn’t have the technicians to spare at the moment. There was no monetary benefit coming him way for any of the assistance that he had been providing, which was a little unfair.

I have no doubt about that, Commander,” Krieg returned. “I have the utmost belief in his abilities from what I have witnessed myself, but there is something else going on at the moment. Something that has me worried about him, and definitely has Bridger and Kristin concerned. No data will be altered or erased while it is in my possession. I promise to return it as soon as the meeting is finished.”

I will be holding you to that, Lieutenant,” Katie said as she handed him the tablet, but held onto it for a few moments longer before releasing it to him.

Nowadays she was loathe to admit that Ben possessed a natural charm that often put others at ease. She had been one of those people to be drawn in when she married him. This time around she hoped that he would be able to help their newest crew member.

I hope you can help figure out what is bothering Lucas,” she added, in a friendlier, more personal tone shared quietly between just the two of them.


By six a.m in the morning, Ben made his way towards Mammal Engineering and Lucas’ small cabin. It had been a long uneventful night, but during that time he had managed to confirm what strategy the teenager had been employing. Now came the time when he had to share what he had observed. Part of him wished he had noticed it before now and spoken up sooner, but hindsight was a fickle thing sometimes.

Before heading to the Ward Room to set up the meeting that the had arranged, he wanted to make sure that Lucas was in his cabin, and hoped that he would remain so for the next couple of hours. The kid had only gone to bed a short time ago, and there was a very real chance that he was still awake. Out of habit he knocked lightly on the door and waited for a reply, but was pleased when he didn’t hear a voice on the other side inviting him in. Ben opened the door and silently entered, unable to shake the feeling that he was intruding.

Music was playing inside the small space, and Lucas was laying on the top bunk, facing towards the hatch door. Thankfully he was sleeping and hadn’t heard his early morning visitor. Maybe his sleep wasn’t quite deep enough yet, as Ben saw his facial expression change from being peaceful to a frown. There was no blanket covering him, but Krieg didn’t want to take the risk of disturbing the teenager. Lucas mumbled something incoherently and tossed about restlessly, trying to find a comfortable position.

Forgive me, but you can’t keep going on like this,” Ben quietly pleaded with his sleeping friend. There was a sense of guilt associated with what he was about to do this morning, but the flip side of that same coin told him that as a good friend he had no choice.


Half an hour later, Ben was putting the finishing touches to the hot coffee that was brewing in the Ward Room. The cups were laid out in a neat row. Now all he had to do was wait.

Kristin was the first to arrive, “Good morning, Ben,” she greeted him warmly. Upon closer inspection of his face, she could see that he had kept up his end of the bargain and been awake all night.

Morning Doc,” he said to her in return cheerfully. “Would you like a cup?”

Definitely, but this time I will return the favour. You go sit at the table and I will bring you one along with my own in a minute,” she offered.

Plenty of sugar this morning please,” he requested.

The Captain was the next person to arrive, “Hello to you both. I sure could use one of these myself,” he added, going about fixing his own coffee.

The three of them took up the same positions around the table they had occupied during the first meeting in this room. There was no awkwardness between them, but they hadn’t brought up the question yet that was showing on each of their faces.

Bridger was about to speak as they waited for everybody else to join them, but the morale officer got in first.

I just came from checking on him in his cabin,” Ben commented. “He was in there but hasn’t been in there all that long. The music was playing again, but he was quite restless. I am hoping that he will stay asleep while we are in here.”

I was going to go there myself, but kept chastising myself not to,” Kristin replied. “Let us hope that he does get some rest for a few hours.”

Before the Captain could make any further comment about him wanting to check on Lucas before coming to the Ward Room, Jonathan, Miguel and Tim all arrived together.

Morning pleasantries were exchanged between them, but nobody mentioned the early hour start to the day. The coffee pot was the first place they congregated around for a few moments, before taking their brews to the table to join in the discussion.

So how did everything go?” Tim O’Neill asked casually, but then thought that perhaps he should have waited until Bridger had addressed them all.

This is Ben’s show this morning, so I am going to let him control everything that goes on in here,” Nathan commented. “I am sure we are all anxious to hear the outcome.”

Ben was about to stand up to talk, but then changed his mind. “Thank you, Sir. There isn’t a right or wrong method to doing this today, but I have to conduct this in my own way.” As he glanced around the table, he was pleased to see people nodding their heads at his approach.

I am going to tell you what I saw, but also mix in a few questions to each of you as I go,” Krieg informed the small group. “For those of you coming in after the Captain, Lucas is currently in his cabin sleeping, but has only been doing that for a short time.”

Firstly, I want to point out that Lucas wasn’t doing anything wrong last night. I mean none of us sitting around this table thought that anyway,” Ben started to explain. “Everything that I saw happening falls directly into the category of what I was talking about in the mess hall yesterday morning.”

And what is that?” Miguel interrupted. “I don’t think any of us thought he was doing something he shouldn’t be.”

Lucas is doing all of this to prove himself, and it would be safe to say that his actions were being done deliberately.” Ben answered plainly. “Or course he doesn’t see it that way, and is probably trying to convince himself most of all. There were other reasons apparent too that I was right about too, but I will get to those shortly.”

Let’s start at the beginning of the night shall we, after most of you had gone back to your own cabins,” Ben began. “I finished talking to Katie on the Bridge about nine o’clock.” For the first time those gathered around the table could see an electronic tablet laying in front of Krieg. As he spoke, he was fidgeting and running his hands long the cover and spine.

It was assumed that he would bring up its purpose in time. Ben rarely used one in his day to day activities as Supply Officer, so its presence now was intriguing.

Katie may have made the mistake of being dismissive and reluctant to let Lucas work on the computer systems a number of days ago, but she has definitely changed her tune since then. Last night she was telling me how happy she was with the help that he is giving. That has been the exception of course, compared to some other people in the last couple of days.”

Unlike the Captain, I couldn’t just stand outside the kid’s cabin and wait until he made an appearance. There was no way to know what time he may show up or if he was going to come out of his room last night at all.” Bridger smiled at his Lieutenant over the reference of him having overheard Lucas’ conversation with his mystery friend.

Lucas may have been exhausted earlier in the night when you followed him, but it was only about fifteen minutes after I began my surveillance that he emerged from his cabin. Two hours sleep was all he probably gained in total, and I doubt that was anywhere near enough of what he should be getting. The first port of call was to spend twenty minutes with Darwin near the moon pool. He didn’t bother using his vocorder, and was happy enough to pet and talk softly to the animal. I was too far away to hear the one-sided conversation.”

Kristin wore an expression on her face that demonstrated how less than happy she was with the amount of time that the teenager had been asleep. She refrained from interrupting Ben’s report, but somehow they needed to come up with a better solution that was going to work about his sleeping pattern.

After that, he walked to the mess hall, where he took advantage of the coffee pot like we are doing right now. After heating up one of the noodle packs, he sat at the same table as yesterday. The area was dark in there except for recessed lighting coming from the back of the kitchen. He didn’t bother turning any other lights on and was content to spend the next thirty to forty minutes eating a small light dinner on his own.”

I know he has only been on-board a short time and isn’t exactly comfortable around us yet,” Tim remarked. “Surely it cannot be healthy for anybody to spend the majority of their time alone. How does someone his age become so accustomed to being in their own company?”

I do know how you feel Tim, and I have asked myself that very same question before today,” Bridger replied. “Obviously it is a less than an ideal situation, but hopefully one that we can start working towards changing as a team.”

Before ten p.m., he returned briefly to his cabin and grabbed the corresponding tablet device to this one, and the electronic tool he has been using to decipher the numerical code. There were still a few crew members moving about in the main corridors, so he chose one of the more isolated sections of the boat and began working away on those door locks. From what I could see, the time frame for each varied from forty minutes, to over an hour.”

You will be a little more relieved to hear Doc, that the bruising to his hip wasn’t causing him as much pain as it was two days ago. He went back to sitting in the middle of the grated floor for some of the time. Something definitely on the positive side in all of this.”

Now, my first question is directed to you Commander,” Ben said to Jonathan Ford. “When Lucas first approached you to help, how many doors did you and Katie work out he would be able to accomplish?”

Lucas came and saw me after he repaired your door lock, Krieg,” Ford answered. “That was before he even did the extra coding work on Miguel’s station. And it was before he headed back up-world.”

Yes I know that, but originally you told him that the number of doors that may need fixing was over two hundred. Since starting this little campaign of repairing the locks, how many do you estimate he should have completed by now?”

Well that is a little difficult to do. When we found out he was injured, I didn’t want to put any additional pressure on Lucas or make him feel obligated to do them when he wasn’t feeling well. Doctor Westphalen would not have wanted him doing any task with his stitches being sore. The Captain was advising us that he wasn’t sleeping a lot and wanted to allow him flexibility. Which I was prepared to do for as long as he needs.”

He was the one who approached me in the mess hall over lunch about working on Miguel’s station because we were short handed. Lucas has been fairly determined to keep contact with any of us to a minimum where he has a choice and there hasn’t been a whole lot of time pass since then to make any great inroads,” Ford pointed out.

I told him that I expected the whole process to take several months to finish them all, and that is a time frame that I am adhering to, given the number of other bugs that have been creeping through the systems lately. I have seen him standing in the corridor working on the problem at least once, but that wasn’t for too long because he admitted that he was hurting. To answer your original question though, I would hazard a guess that he may have completed ten locks,” Jonathan presumed.

Ben picked up the tablet and turned it on, knowing Ford would be able to read the screen. “You know what this is of course,” he began for others around the table so they knew. “This is how Katie has been monitoring Lucas’ progress.”

Jonathan nodded his head, “Yes, I showed this to him when he first started. Where he has to record the locks that he has repaired and the details, time and date stamp each entry and put his initials. I told him that it is necessary for all of that to be done because the brass uses the data to determine the budget that is allocated for such projects next time.”

Take a look at this then,” Ben instructed, handing over the tablet, and waiting for Ford to scan the data. “I will let you tell everybody what you see with the maintenance work logs.”

Ford thought that Krieg may be exaggerating a little at first, but as he concentrated on what was in front of him, he reached a concerning and stark point when a pattern began to stand out. He emphasised his confusion more by sitting up straighter in the chair and using a finger to trail down the small screen.

Ford looked up briefly at Krieg, “There has to be at least………,” falling silent again as he continued to read downwards.

Ben nodded, seeing that the man understood was he was trying to say. “Take a look at the time and date stamps too. They ones we are interested in are easy to identify.”

There has to be at least twenty marked as being completed,” Ford said with complete amazement. “When did he find the time to do all of these, going by the time each of them were taking?”

I counted closer to twenty five, but yes, at least that number that you mention,” Ben agreed. “All with his initials beside them.”

Let me take a look at that, please,” Bridger instructed. Ford readily handed over the tablet, knowing that the Captain would be alarmed as he was. Kristin stood up from her chair and was looking over Nathan’s shoulder.

From what I was able to personally observe last night, he completed at least five overnight,” Ben informed them. “He stopped about three a.m. this morning, but I think that was because his leg was cramping up on him from sitting too long.”


Everyone seated in the room was stunned to hear Ben’s version of events. Despite being over-tired earlier in the night according to the Captain’s own words, Lucas had been working well in to the early morning hours.

Where did he go after that, back to his cabin?” Kristin asked, starting to pick up on a worrying trend about the boy’s work habits.

Oh if only he did that,” Krieg reported. “He went back to the mess hall and had another cup of coffee. Then I followed him down into your department.”

What was he doing in the science laboratories at that time of the morning?” Bridger queried. “There would not have been any experimenting going on for him to watch. In fact there should not have been any staff about at all.”

There wasn’t anybody about,” Ben confirmed. “He was in laboratory three, where all the living plants and the hydroponic system is set up. I couldn’t get into the room itself without being spotted, but in his hand he was carrying a pen and some small labels and a roll of protective tape. He was only there about an hour before leaving. I didn’t get a chance to check what work he was doing in there.”

I know he was doing in there,” Kristin spoke up, drawing everyone’s attention again as she sat down at the table. “I wanted to thank him personally yesterday for the efforts that he has been making. After breakfast, I didn’t get the chance to see him until your party last night, Ben, and that seemed to be the wrong place to bring it up.”

What has he been doing for you?” Nathan asked. “You told Ben and I that he was working on a software program to set up a scheduling program for your staff. And a way to allow them access to the database from more than one area at a time.”

Yes, that is true, and what he negotiated with me to gain some time to work on his own experiments. As far as I am aware, he has not started those yet,” Kristin replied. “Jane, one of my technicians came up to me rather excited yesterday morning after breakfast when I returned to get started for the day. She thought I had done the work.”

What work?” Tim O’Neill asked, though everybody else was thinking the same question.

Although I haven’t been able to establish an extensive testing and sampling schedule yet with my people, there were already hundreds and hundreds of specimens that had yet to be labelled. The laboratories house all of the natural specimens and all the geology samples and somehow, Lucas has taken the time to carefully and correctly label them all,” Kristin advised.

How do you know it was him?” Miguel questioned. “Depending on how long he has been doing it, that would be a significant amount of writing to do. How does he know all the correct names?”

Oh he is smart enough to know them, he and I played a little game before he went up-world,” Kristin said with a fond smile at the memory. “Computers maybe his true passion, but Lucas is a very bright boy and demonstrated a vast general knowledge of scientific terms. It was his distinctive neat and small hand-writing that gave away who had done it all.”

The living plants and specimens in laboratory three was the only area that hadn’t been done up until last night,” the doctor reported. “My staff would not have had the time to achieve that amount of the labelling for several more weeks at least. It was considered a lower priority in the scheme of other projects.”

When he left the movie night and came down to my department, he told me that the software program for me was almost finished. He was trying to mask how he was feeling by telling at the time. But in the small conversation we shared, he was quite pleased that he was almost finished. He revealed that he shouldn’t be long before he would be able to show me and my staff how to use it,” Kristin continued.

You are not the only one he has been creating software for either,” Ben announced. “After fixing my own door lock, he has been working on creating a program for me to use for my inventory. This was something that only he and I knew he was working on. When I spoke to him earlier yesterday near the moon pool, he told me that it was finished as well.”

That is some kind of work load that he has taken on,” Tim remarked, going over what had been discussed.

Does anybody else here have any other work that he has been completing on their behalf?” Ben enquired.

Lucas completed that coding work for my station and uploaded the patch,” Miguel mentioned. “He did ask to complete the coding in his own cabin from a downloaded file. Come the start of my shift the next morning, it had already been done. I spoke to Commander Ford about it.”

Thats right,” Ford agreed, “Because I expected him to come and inform me once it was ready. He had anticipated that there was quite a few hours of work to do to fix the problem. In that instance there isn’t any work log that would show how long he was working, or the times.”

Krieg continued to give details of his shadowing activities. “By that time I was getting a little drowsy myself and would have gladly joined him for the second cup of coffee in the mess hall. He was finished with the labelling and the door locks, and it was closer to four a.m. and I thought he might be heading to bed.”

I assume he didn’t do that?” Bridger commented. In the back of his mind he was still trying to add up all the different projects that he was working on, both for himself and the crew.

No, he went back to sitting on the small staircase leading down to moon pool, leaning against the wall. Staring off into the water, deep in thought about something by himself. Darwin must have been out feeding at that time, but Lucas didn’t make any effort to find out where the dolphin was at that hour. He didn’t look like wanted company, but he desperately looked like he could use a friend or two,” Ben remarked with a touch of regret that he hadn’t been able to make his presence known.

He sat on those stairs for more than an hour. It was closer to five-thirty a.m. before he made any effort to go back to his cabin and attempt to sleep. Half an hour later, I am checking on him before coming here. “So after a long night, my gut feeling was unfortunately right,” Ben filled in.

Here we have someone who is living through what can only be described as a very traumatic and uncertain time in his life, coupled together with being shoved amongst a virtual group of strangers. In his own words he is trying to fit in, so he spends time during the day in his cabin, working on these various projects for everyone. Pushing and pushing himself.”

There you have stated previously, Captain, there has been too much upheaval for Lucas recently and not enough time for him to sort it out in his head. From incidents like what happened on the Bridge twice, like you mentioned, it is clear that he is still scared and afraid. Even though we have been doing everything we can to offer support, he isn’t sure who he can turn to talk to.”

We can probably collectively guess at a list as long as your arm of what might be on his mind. What is going to happen once his father becomes involved? How long he is going to be staying here on SeaQuest? Valid concerns, but short on any answers for Lucas to be satisfied with.

Not only is he secretly working long hours throughout the day and keeping busy without many breaks in-between unless one of us is insisting or encouraging otherwise. We can see from those work logs for the door locks how many were completed and the times. At night time, he continues to working different hours opposite to everybody else, thinking that few people are going to notice. He is probably happy enough to work in the middle of the night because it means less people that he has to deal with.

For the last several days, Kristin may have been taking great care of his physical injuries. And the Doc is probably in a much better position to stimulate his thirst for knowledge and cater to the high demand of his brain. The Captain has been doing his best to encourage him to eat more on a regular basis. Our best combined efforts haven’t been a raving success yet, even with Don helping too.”

As for sleeping, I would go so far to say that he is actively avoiding it,” Ben said. “All of that work and the stress that he is carrying around has culminated in what you saw last night, Captain, after he left the recreation room. That probably explains why he fell asleep in the mess hall yesterday morning. Maybe he mistimed going back to his cabin before being found out. Lucas is working himself too hard, just to fit in and to feel like he is contributing, but it is also to forget all the other uncertainty and turmoil he is facing.”

Since learning the awful truth about what his father has been doing, I am sure that some of us have been asking the glaring question in front of us about how he is coping. How has he been doing that? It has been clear at times that he has taken a step backwards and hasn’t been coping so great. At other times, it would be fair to say that he has been acting with a lot of maturity for someone his age. With some understanding of the burden head, we now have the answer staring us directly in the face…..” pausing and looking at the faces listening from around the table.

Lucas is working himself into a state of exhaustion because it is the probably only way that he can gain a few hours of restful sleep during the early morning hours. Then the same relentless routine begins again all over again the next day. He is trying to compensate for the chaos, fear and anxiety that is going on inside of him. Why? Simple, he is doing everything he can to mask what he is feeling, and denying the battle within.”

The faces that stared back at Ben could scarcely believe the Morale Officer’s very candid outline. Their emotions were a bubbling cauldron. The silence in the room was deafening as they digested everything that had been said to form their own personal points of view. And more importantly trying to gain a sense of what Lucas was putting himself through. Everybody at the table was stunned with the accuracy that was being thrown out onto the table in front of them about Lucas.

Ben spoke again, seeing that his words had hit home.

I didn’t tell you any of this to make anybody here feel guilty. That is not why I volunteered to do this in the first place,” he promised. “All of us seated here are trying to make a difference and become his friend, there is no denying that. And we have all been making some positive steps forward to help him adapt. But we have to be realistic that there is a long way to go and the road ahead is going to get a lot rougher before it smooths out. Lucas isn’t exactly going to make it easier to gain his trust, or show on a map which direction he plans to go.”

Tim O’Neill asked the obvious question that they all wanted to ask, “What do we do then? Does anybody have any good suggestions?”

We can’t very well confront him out in the open about all of this,” Miguel pointed out. “And its not like he has been doing anything wrong, like you said Krieg.”

You are correct Ortiz, we cannot say anything, because that would have the total opposite affect on him. He would only view anything like that as treason and with suspicion. It wouldn’t be long before he would be trying to hide from everyone again, or maybe doing something worse. None of us wants that. This has to be handled very delicately and keeping Lucas’ wants and needs as the focus on any solution,” Ben responded.

Captain, I think this is where I throw the ball into your court,” Krieg said, turning to speak directly to Bridger.

What did you have in mind?” Nathan asked, noting the Ben had already come up with at least a partial plan.

Lucas needs to get totally off SeaQuest, even if it is only for short time or a few days. I know the schedule at the moment is crazy with everybody being under pressure to get the vessel fully operational. As Captain that falls to you most of all,” Krieg explained. “I know how important computers are to him, but it would act like a circuit breaker, giving him time away from anything that resembles work. Somehow we need to convince him that such a move is a good thing for a bit of true relaxation.”

Even if that was remotely possible,” Ford interjected, trying to think how it could be achieved. “The Captain has been promising Lucas that he doesn’t need to leave until he feels safe. Given the unknown situation with his father, that may be a tough ask.”

Which is why the request has to come specifically from the Captain,” Ben agreed. “And wherever you decide is a good place. Lucas probably wouldn’t go anywhere without you being there, Sir.”

Nathan was looking back at Ben, mulling everything over in his head. He also considered what Jonathan had said about the promises he had made to Lucas. He was adamant that the teenager wasn’t leaving this vessel unless his safety could be guaranteed.

With the software he had been working on for me complete, and the same with yours Kristin, maybe that will free up a little of his time. But he will probably find something else to fill that void left behind quickly enough,” Ben reasoned. “Assuming we can get him away for a break of some kind, when he comes back we approach things day by day until we can hammer out a better solution.”

Just as Ben finished speaking, the Captain’s PAL communicator chirped.

This is Bridger,” Nathan answered.”

Sir, this is Hitchcock contacting you from the Bridge.”

Is there a problem, Commander?” the Captain asked. Katie knew of the meeting they were having, and he doubted she would have felt it necessary to interrupt unless the matter was important.

Chief Crocker just reported to me, Sir, that Lucas was speaking to him on the Bridge a short time ago,” Katie informed him. “I don’t know how suspicious he was with O’Neill and Ortiz both missing from here as well.”

That is only about two hours sleep he has had,” Kristin quietly commented, looking down at her watch and noting that the time was almost seven thirty in the morning.

Did Crocker mention what he was there for?” Bridger asked. “Is he still there now?”

Lucas was looking to speak to Commander Ford about the door locks, but couldn’t find anybody about, including you, Sir. That probably seemed more than a little odd to him. Chief didn’t want to outright lie to him either. Crocker told him that a few of you were having a meeting somewhere to explain you all being absent at the same time. I thought it prudent to let you all know that he may be headed that way because he did leave a few minutes ago. I don’t know if he will go searching as far as the Ward Room.”

Thank you, Commander, we will wrap things up here now, and go back to where we need to be,” Bridger advised her. “I will find Lucas after I leave here so he doesn’t come looking for everyone. I will attend the Bridge just as soon as I can.”

Yes, Sir,” Katie said, before ending the conversation.

Well then, you all heard her, and we had better scatter,” Bridger said, getting up from the table. “Leave everything with me, Ben. I don’t know what I am go to be able to arrange, but I will come and find you when I know more. Thank you everybody for your time this morning.”

The other crew members followed suit, getting up from the table. Coffee cups were now empty. The team members from the janitorial crew would take care of cleaning them and clearing them away and returning them ready in time for their next use.

Jonathan Ford and Miguel were the first two people to leave, telling the group that they were headed back to the Bridge.

Mr O’Neill, when you start your day, can you please contact Admiral Noyce for me, and set up a conference with him. I want to be able to talk to him as soon as he has a spare moment,” Bridger instructed. “I will take that call in my quarters on a secure channel.”

Yes, Sir,” Tim answered. “I will contact his office as soon as I leave here.” The young lieutenant then followed his fellow crew members, leaving the Ward Room and intending to start his shift.

Now there was only Ben Krieg and Kristin Westphalen left with the Captain. The expressions on their faces said so much that they didn’t need to put how they were feeling into words.

I am headed to bed and for a few hours of sleep myself,” Ben said tiredly. Krieg was pleased that everything was on the table, but not happy with the measures that needed to be taken to find out the answers. He had seen the concerns and worry on the faces of the Captain and the doctor as he spoke to the group.

Despite there being a small network of people involved, everybody was looking to the three of them to lead the charge. No matter how much support they had already offered to Lucas, and how many positive steps they had taken, they were both blaming themselves for not seeing the additional signs early enough.

Ben, I can scarcely put into words how much I want to thank you for your efforts last night, and from the beginning,” Bridger said, trying to encapsulate the man’s kindness as a friend into a sentence or two. “Please get some rest for a few hours today. I took what you said about trying to get Lucas away from here for some relaxation. I don’t know how successful I am going to be. But if what I have in mind plays out, then I am going to need you soon.”

You know you can count on me any time when it comes to doing anything for the kid,” Krieg promised. Giving Doctor Westphalen a cheeky grin as he left the two of them, and headed back to his own cabin.

He really did some great detective work last night,” Kristin commented. She could see the concern for Lucas on Nathan’s face, as she gave his shoulder a friendly squeeze.

Yes, he did,” Nathan answered, “You have been too,” he added, turning to her and appreciating that she was just as invested in Lucas’ well-being as he was.

Nathan, when you do see Lucas, could you please send him down in med-bay. I would like to check on his stitches please,” Kristin reminded him. “I won’t give away anything that was discussed here this morning.”

What are you planning to do? Kristin queried, having heard the man tell Ben that he had formulated some kind of plan. After his instructions to Tim, she knew it involved the Admiral somehow.

Bill said he was willing to help where he could,” Nathan stated, “So here is the first chance he is going to get to show he means it. I am going to call in one of the many markers he owes me. I will come and find you later,” he added cryptically.


back in Bridger’s quarters:

Thank you, Lieutenant,” Bridger said as he took the video-link call from his communications officer.

Good Morning, Bill,” Nathan addressed him, in a tone that he knew his long time friend wouldn’t be able to ignore.

How is everything going on-board the SeaQuest, Nathan?” Admiral Noyce answered. “Sorry to disappoint you in saying that I don’t have any more information at this stage about the case with Lawrence Wolenczak.”

The vessel nor that poor excuse of a man is why I am contacting you this early, Bill,” Bridger stated. “Lucas is the focus though. You and I are going to have a little discussion about what is in his best interests.”

How is he coping?” Noyce enquired. “What do you mean by saying his ‘best interests’, Nathan?”

Bridger spent the next several minutes giving the man an outline of the surveillance that Ben Krieg had carried out and the conclusions that he had drawn in direct answer to the Admiral’s question. Nathan didn’t leave any details out, and filled him in on the details of all the programming and other work that Lucas had secretly been doing for the crew.

The Captain also went on to explain about the two separate incidents that had occurred after Robert Cooper’s departure. He described what Lucas had said to Ben about how he was feeling about his placement aboard SeaQuest. He also told Noyce about the trouble the teenager was experiencing first-hand about trying to fit in and the work load that he was placing on himself. Bridger was convinced that he owed it to Lucas to make sure that the Admiral was kept appraised of everything, no matter how difficult it was to accept.

The details of the movie night were truncated to protect Ben and the efforts he had gone to about creating a relaxing atmosphere. Nathan reinforced his earlier statement about how much fear Lucas was carrying around, by reiterating what Krieg had added.

What do you want from me, Nathan?” Noyce asked. After hearing how exhausted the teenager was and given the uncertainty of the situation with his father, he wasn’t going to have much of a choice. Guilt over his role from the beginning was strong, and he hadn’t made any substantial moves yet towards making amends to Lucas.

Time, Bill,” Bridger answered with a sly smile, “I know the maintenance schedule is shot due to the number of bugs that are still plaguing Commander Hitchcock and her team. You probably already have your little calendar full of days that you are marking off, waiting for us to be ready. However, this is about Lucas, and that is one area that I am not willing to compromise on at the moment. This time it is going to cost you.”

Where would you take him if he agreed to go?” Noyce queried. Nathan had just informed him that he wanted to take Lucas away from the SeaQuest.

Bridger told him of his plan and where he was thinking of taking Lucas. “Kristin would probably come too if I asked her. When I first came on-board she told me had she had tried to find me to discuss my research. At the time she was quite skeptical that my location kept being reported as unreachable. Maybe it is time I showed them both what I have been partially working on for the past six years.”

Noyce spent the next few minutes thinking about Bridger’s offer, and suggestions. He shuffled a number of the papers around on his desk as he tried to work out something that would suit all parties involved.

I am prepared to give you what you seek, Nathan,” Noyce replied. “I think there is a way for you to get what you want, and for me to get the best use out of your crew and vessel while you are absent.”

How so?” Bridger commented, in the back of his mind he was a little irked at Bill. ‘There always has to be a catch’ The man was still trying to figure out a way where the U.E.O. could take advantage of the situation.

Noyce could see the less than impressed expression on Bridger’s face, and could see the man about to give him an earful. “Hear me out,” he pleaded first.

The U.E.O. is desperate to see her back in the water operational, Nathan,” the Admiral pointed out. “Some smaller, undecided nations are looking to us to provide the proof that we can deliver the protections in the oceans that we promise. Then they will be quite happy to counted amongst the league of countries that have already joined in peace. After all that nasty business with Stark, we need to be seen as coming out on top again.”

Not at the expense of Lucas’ emotional and psychological well-being you don’t,” Nathan shoved back defensively. “I am not going to let him be used as some pawn. We are doing everything we can here to prevent that at the moment with this father. I am not going to let you turn around and do exactly the same thing so you can gain some political ground.”

No no, you have it all wrong, let me explain for a minute,” Noyce said, hearing the determined words, but knowing that his friend was more worried about Lucas than causing waves.

Bridger sat down at the small desk near the holographic screen, waiting to hear this idea that the Admiral was about to share.

I am sure that you are aware of the Naval Air Station situated at Key West?” Bill prompted.

I am familiar with the place, but haven’t been there for a long time in an official capacity,” Nathan answered. “There have probably be a number of changes since I was there last. The last time was before Carol and I were told about Robert. I think he spent some time there during his training.”

No doubt he probably did, Nathan,” Noyce agreed. “Referred to as N.A.S. Key West, it is recognized as a training facility for air-to-air combat fighter aircraft of all the military services. There have been a considerable number of changes of the top personnel there since you left the service, and Robert would have been stationed there after his time at the academy at Pearl Harbour.”

What has that got to do with me wanting to get Lucas off SeaQuest for a break?” Bridger asked. Robert had wanted to fly since he was a very small child, and eventually he had seen that dream become a reality. Unfortunately his time as a pilot was short-lived, but now wasn’t the time to spend wallowing on lost opportunities. He was still very proud of what he son had achieved, and that could never be taken away.

Key West is chosen for that kind of training because the nearby aerial ranges offer favourable flying conditions in that area year round,” Noyce started a long-winded explanation. The station and the associated offshore air combat ranges are equipped with some of the most sophisticated combat training systems available. They can track and record all kinds of aerial manoeuvres.”

On a broader scale, it also involves the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security including many of the other federal agencies that were overhauled when the U.E.O. came into effect. The United States Coast Guard,Air National Guard, Army National Guard units and allied military forces. There was so much red tape involved before with each of them having a slightly different mandate about operations and their mission.”

The station plays host to quite a number of Fighter Squadrons, and a detachment that I know you and your crew will be more associated with, the Special Forces Underwater Operations. There is a school based there and their headquarters,” Noyce finished his monologue.

Bridger knew some of what Bill had spoken about. They both had first-hand dealings with a number of the personnel from some of those specialised branches during their younger years, and later when they became more senior figures of the service.

Nathan was about to repeat his question of ‘What does that have to do with anything…..’ before Bill finally brought up his idea.

SeaQuest and your crew could head down there to Key West. You and Lucas would be close enough to leave for your break. Whilst you are away, I am sure that either Commander Ford or Commander Hitchcock would be in a position to be able to demonstrate her capabilities to a few senior military faces through her corridors.”

Bridger made sure that Bill could see his dramatic eye roll at the tactics he was employing. “How long are you planning for?” without making any firm commitment one way or the other about attending the station. “With a good speed and smooth conditions, the distance could be covered in about twenty four hours. But I would be looking to leave here earlier than that. I would have to talk to the both Commanders about what you are arranging at N.A.S.”

I can give you four days, Nathan, sometime after that, once you have made your way back at Pearl, I plan on making a personal visit to SeaQuest. I won’t be able to complete the tour in Key West due to some other important meetings that have been scheduled during that time,” the Admiral advised.

Bill Noyce then thought for a minute about Lucas’ age, and added an alternative suggestion in case Florida was not a place that Bridger had in mind to take the break.

If you wanted to take Lucas somewhere else, Nathan, then there are options there too. I can arrange some suitable accommodation for the three of you. A separate room each for Kristin and the boy and a private rental car to take them to some of the tourist spots. I am not up to speed with what the best adventure parks are, but I could do some digging on some teenager friendly places and activities.”

Nathan gave a small smirk, noting that the Admiral was doing his best, given the difficult pressures he was under, and coupled with his sudden request for leave at an inopportune moment. “Not an enormous amount of time by any stretch of the imagination, but I am thankful that you are giving it to me and it is a start I suppose,” Bridger said with gratitude.

I am honestly not sure what fun activities he will want to do, but I was going to try the relaxation route first. I have a few ideas in mind that don’t involve being on time or somewhere specific. Hopefully I will be able to stimulate his senses, but get him to slow down and take some time out. If Lucas wants to go to an adventure park or other touristy places, then that might be something else to consider for another time when the schedule isn’t so hectic.”

Since the vessel is going to be in that area anyway, on that fourth day, I may arrange for a few specific people to join us for a first ‘unofficial’ get together. We can all head back on the launch early on the fifth day. SeaQuest won’t be that far away for us to meet back up with them and continue back before your arrival.”

Are you finally prepared to let a few other people into your world, Nathan?” Noyce teased. Bill knew where his friend was intending to go, and knew that it was a huge step forward for the man.

The Admiral had personally scrutinised each of the crew members left over from Stark’s darkest hour, and made the decision to leave some in their chosen roles. The two senior officers on-board were driven by their own aspiring ambition, their sense of duty and their desire to succeed. They relished situations that demanded a cool head, to take control, problem solve and think outside the box. Both Katie Hitchcock and Jonathan Ford were both highly respected and well qualified individuals, and hand-picked to provide a multi-faceted and dynamic challenge for Bridger. All fine qualities that would serve the SeaQuest and the rest of her crew on any mission.

Individually, they provided different approaches and methods of command. Together, they would bring out his best skills, and support him superbly in the role as Captain. Nathan had allowed some trust to grow between himself and some SeaQuest team members in such a short space of time. Bill could only view that as being something positive.

Bridger may say that he was doing this solely for Lucas’, but it was also proving to be a huge benefit to himself as well. A man like him had so much to offer in life yet, both as a leader of a military vessel. And he was too valuable to lose for the contributions he was making in the scientific community with his dolphin research. More importantly, he had so much to offer someone younger as a teacher and a friend who would listen.

I was only planning on inviting Lucas and Kristin if she is agreeable, but given how close we are going to be, it seems silly not to show them,” Bridger answered. “They wouldn’t need a launch to get there from the SeaQuest. I have a know someone who conducts daily tours from Miami through to Key West. He will know where I am and be able to bring there.”

When are you planning to leave the SeaQuest?” Noyce asked.

I have to broach the subject with Kristin first, and Lucas most of all. Maybe they will both turn me down,” Nathan replied. “But if they do choose to come, I should be able to commandeer a launch before tomorrow morning. Doing it that way will cut down the travel time on the launch considerably.”

I could arrange a helicopter to get the three of you there if you choose,” Noyce offered. “You are back to being a higher ranking naval officer now, Nathan. There are perks that are associated with that and can be utilised if you choose to do so. I used one of the Air Shuttles to get to you last time to invite you back.”

Not at this stage, thank you,” Nathan said. He thought using either method was a little over the top, but want to stomp all over the Admiral’s generosity, so he didn’t voice that opinion out loud. “Lucas told me himself that he gets air sick quite frequently on planes. I am not sure if he has ever been on a helicopter before, but I imagine flying around in one may have a similar outcome. He has travelled on the launches before without feeling nauseous, so I will choose that method of transport.”

Well I am sure you know him a little better by now than I do by now,” Noyce conceded. “I know you and Kristin will make the best choices you can on his behalf.”

I am not so sure that Lucas is going to be all that happy to hear that you are planning to come on-board when we get back, Bill,” Bridger voiced. “I will omit that little detail until we return. Hopefully by then he will be better rested and be more willing to accept you being here in person. Maybe I can build it into the conversation during our break so that it isn’t so much of a shock.”

I will advise you as soon as the arrangements have been made,” the Admiral promised. “That should give you enough time to talk to Lucas about the reasons for my presence.”

I will stay in touch and keep you informed,” Bridger stated, preparing to end the video-link call. There were a few things to do first before any trip could be organised.

I will do the same, Nathan,” Noyce affirmed. “Hopefully I will hear some positive news from you before tomorrow. I will be in my office for the remainder of the day, and you know where to contact me after that. I may need to reach you while you are away in case there is any developments on the legal side of things.

After severing the connection, Bridger tried to make a mental list of the things he needed to do, and in what order. Of course he wanted to rush right down to the teenager’s cabin, but that may not have the result that he was hoping to achieve. He needed an ally on his side first, so that would be his first point of call after leaving his quarters.


As Captain Bridger left his quarters, he used his PAL communicator to page Jonathan Ford on the Bridge.

Yes, Sir?” Ford asked, answering the chirp from his corresponding personal communicating device.

Jonathan, I am sorry that my meeting with Admiral Noyce took a lot longer than I originally planned, I have only just finished talking to him,” Bridger apologised. “I have to talk to Kristin down in the science department, then I will make my way to you. We have a new course to start plotting and I want to be under-way as soon as possible, please.”

Acknowledged. A new course. Can I ask where we are headed to, Sir?” Ford queried. The Executive Officer had to admit that he was more than a little curious. Up until yesterday there had been no plans for the SeaQuest to head out into open waters.

Somewhere nice and tropical, Commander, the Florida Keys,” Bridger answered. “I will be along to give you more details as soon as I can. There are some other things that need to be arranged before tomorrow morning.”

I will start plotting the course now, Sir, and advise Commander Hitchcock,” Ford confirmed. ‘The Florida Keys’ that piqued his interest even more about what Noyce and the Captain had planned for the crew.


Now that he had spoken to Jonathan about setting a designated course, he could afford to take some more time for his next task this morning. He was headed down to the science department to talk to Kristin as he had advised Ford. He had to cross his fingers that she would be willing to listen to his unusual offer.

Entering the science laboratories, there were a number of Kristin’s staff traversing the area with various pieces of paraphernalia in their possession. Test tubes and glass beakers were the accessory of the day. Bridger didn’t know which area she would be in at this time of the day.

Luckily for the Captain, Kristin was in the small staff kitchenette, talking to one of her staff members. “Good morning, Nathan, I wasn’t expecting to see you this early in the day down here,” the red-headed doctor greeted him. “This is one of my technicians, Jane Edwards,” she added in introduction.

Nice to meet you, Captain, Sir,” the young woman said, feeling a little flustered at having to meet the person in charge of the whole vessel. “Doctor Westphalen has told me so much about you.”

Painting me in a positive light, I hope,” Bridger said, giving her a warm smile. He could see she was nervous.

Oh my, yes,” Jane replied enthusiastically. “She has told me about some of the remarkable work you have been doing with your dolphin,” she gushed.

Thank you. I would love to talk to you more about it, but at another time. I am a little pressed for time this morning,” Bridger said with reluctance. He usually had a lot of patience and time when the subject was brought up and would share as much as he could. But unfortunately not today.

Could I please speak to you privately?” Nathan asked Kristin. “I apologize Miss Edwards, the matter I want to discuss needs Doctor Westphalen’s personal input,” he added tactfully.

No problem, Captain, I have some work to carry out to fill my day,” the blond-haired woman said in response. “I will go over those samples you showed me this morning, and give you my best analysis by this afternoon.”

Thank you, Jane,” Kristin said to her. “I look forward to hearing your thoughts and the data that came from the experiment that you have been conducting.”

The Captain and the doctor watched the young technician leave the kitchenette, leaving the two of them on their own. “A little over zealous at time, but she is a great worker and a tremendous asset to my staff.”

Follow me to my office, Nathan,” Kristin instructed. As they walked, the doctor gave a verbal run down to some of the work that her and the scientific team were setting up in her department. After a short walk, they arrived outside a small door. The lettering on the outside had her name, her title as Chief Medical Officer, and as the head of the scientific personnel on-board, and a number of letters.

As they entered, Bridger couldn’t help but read it all, impressed what he saw. “With all of your qualifications and the different hats you wear in this place, sooner or later you are going to need a bigger door,” he said with a good-natured laugh. He would have liked to heard more about the work she was planning to do, but he didn’t have the time to indulge at the moment.

How did your meeting with Admiral Noyce go?” Kristin asked as she offered him a seat. The Captain refused, not planning to stay all that long. “I assume whatever the two of you discussed is behind the reason for your visit into this area.”

Bridger didn’t answer straight away, thinking for a moment, and trying to get the words in the correct order first.

Surprisingly well,” Nathan commented casually. “I was expecting a lot less co-operation from him.” Then he decided that he was probably going to get this all wrong anyway.

Kristin could see his momentary hesitation, and wondered if the meeting had not gone as well as Nathan was telling her.

What is your own work schedule like down here over the next few days?” he asked, knowing that Kristin liked to keep herself busy on a regular basis.

Kristin wasn’t quite sure how to reply at first. Obviously there was more to his question than what could be drawn on face value. “I thought you were supposed to be working out a solution for Lucas. Why are you asking about my work schedule?”

Nathan threw caution to the wind and knew he would just have to lay all of his cards on the table. “Bill has been told about what has been happening. There still isn’t any word from the legal department in relation to making Lawrence Wolenczak accountable for his actions. I have convinced him to give me four days leave to take Lucas away on a break away from SeaQuest.”

That is good news. So you thought Ben’s idea of him needing to get off the vessel had some merit,” Kristin remarked, still wondering how she fit into the plan. “Four days isn’t a long time, but I guess anything is better than nothing.”

Oh don’t worry, it comes with whole list of strings attached of course,” Nathan said, his tone of voice having a slight edge to it. “I was able to negotiate the time away, but in return the SeaQuest and her crew are headed towards the Florida Keys today.”

Today?” Kristin said in shock. “Why so soon?”

Bill wants to show off the SeaQuest, ready or not to the personnel at the N.A.S. Station, located at Key West,” Bridger told her. “He wants to dangle a carrot in front of them to prove that she is capable and ready. The admiral is intending to use Jonathan and Katie as the glorified tour guides for these people.”

I take it you don’t approve of what he wants to do?” Kristin asked, still feeling a little lost in the conversation.

That’s the best part, I won’t be there to have to worry about it. Jonathan thrives on that sort of military protocol, I don’t. Katie will enjoy showing them all the technological advancements that are on-board, and know how to pronounce their names,” Nathan said with a grin. “I don’t have to play Mr Nice Guy at all whilst they are on-board.”

You don’t?” Kristin asked sceptically. “Wouldn’t Admiral Noyce want you to be there because you are the Captain? And I have it on good authority that you are a nice fellow once in a while,” she joked.

I want the four days I have at my disposal to begin tomorrow morning,” Nathan explained. “I am intending to take a launch when we are closer. From there it will only be a few hours travel time. Bill was willing to provide a plane or helicopter, but I don’t think Lucas would enjoy either mode of transport if given a choice.”

Tomorrow morning is rather short notice, have you even discussed your plans with Lucas yet? Does he know where you intend to go for this break? Has he even agreed to go along?”

Nathan could see that she didn’t quite understand what he was trying to say, and wasn’t reading between the lines enough. “I came here to ask you to come along first.” He could see the impact his words had on her. “I need to know I have an ally on my side, before I do go and ask Lucas if he wants to come. I have no idea what I am going to do if he turns me down.”

Kristin shoved her hands deeply into the pockets of the white laboratory coat that she was wearing. If Nathan had been able to see her hands, he would note that they were clenched tightly together as fists.

Nathan, I don’t know what to say,” she replied, see the hopeful look on his face. There was a lot of work that she was supposed to be doing. “I am very flattered of course that you would consider asking me.”

Say you will come,” he urged with a grin. He saw Kristin looking about her office, taking in what was sitting on her desk, and probably thinking about the rest of the expected workload. He could see the inner struggle of wanting to agree, but feeling guilty for her team needing to cover her absence.

This is for Lucas, remember,” he pointed out. “He needs us to be working together as a team.”

That is not even remotely fair,” Kristin tried to argue, knowing that by using the teenager’s well-being as a bargaining chip, the man had practically guaranteed her co-operation. She wouldn’t be able to turn down the chance to help Lucas. “Where are you intending to take him?”

To the place you have been so keen to go to all these years. My place, my island. I can show you some of the research that I have been working on with Darwin,” Bridger answered. “Bill offered all kinds of teenager fun activities if I wanted them. Accommodation and vehicle hire. I turned him down, and told him that I don’t think that is the type of break he is needing right now.”

Four days it is,” Kristin said, reaching a decision and holding out her hand to seal the deal. “I will talk to my staff today and appoint someone to act in my place.”

Thank you. There is plenty of room at the house, with enough guests rooms for you and Lucas,” Bridger informed her. “I will get Ben to make up enough supplies for us for that amount of time. Hopefully it will provide you with a little relaxation as well.”

Do you really think he is going to agree?” Kristin asked. “Should we be taking anybody else with us?”

The best I can do is ask him,” Bridger answered her first question. “He is still fearful about his father, so I honestly don’t know how he is going to react when I ask. If he refuses, then all of the plans that I have going around in my head won’t even be needed. I am not going to pressure him into leaving, even for a break he desperately needs, if he doesn’t feel safe.”

I told Bill, that since the SeaQuest is going to be based near Key West, on the fourth day, I intend to invite some of the crew to join us,” Nathan continued. “Only a select few that Lucas will feel comfortable with. If they come in the morning, then I can organise a few activities on the beach, and then end with a barbecue. Now that I am Captain again, I am going to have to allow people to get to know me better as well. Part of that is to lift the veil of secrecy that I have been clinging to about my island.”

I thought about arranging for Ben to join us from tomorrow and pilot the launch, in case Lucas was looking for a friend a little closer to his own age,” Bridger commented. “But if he does agree to come, I think the two of us can manage to keep him occupied for the first few days without needing too much extra help.”

Bill also advised me that when this little exercise in Key West is completed, then he is planning a personal inspection of SeaQuest,” Bridger forewarned. “I have no intentions of tell Lucas that today. That is something that the two of us are going to have to prepare him for.”

That is not going to be a smooth or well received visit when the admiral does come on-board,” the doctor predicted.

Tell me about it,” Bridger agreed. “But at the moment, I want to focus on one day at a time. Dealing with any of that is going to have to wait.”

Are you going to ask Lucas to come once you leave here?” Kristin queried. “Do you want me to be present when you do so?”

I am going to go and find him now,” Nathan answered. “Let me try asking on my own first, and see how that goes. I want him to be able to make the choice without feeling pressured or obligated.”

Don’t forget to remind Lucas when you do find him, that I want to check on his stitches,” Kristin reminded. “If you need me to help organise anything for the journey once he agrees, please come and tell me.”

Thank you,” Nathan said as he opened the door to her office. “Keep your fingers crossed.”

Good luck, because you are going to need it,” Kristin stated.


Leaving the science department, Bridger’s stride was a little more confident. Kristin’s positive response had been the first major hurdle to his plan, and he was grateful for her participation.

Looking down at his watch, the time was now nine a.m. in the morning, and the Captain headed toward Mammal Engineering hoping that the teenager may be still in his cabin. Reaching the small hatch, he listened, trying to detect any music playing inside the room. He couldn’t hear anything. He politely knocked and waited. After a few moments of continual silence, he opened the door, but alas the small cabin was empty.

Although Ben had reported him asleep earlier, now he was awake again and the time difference suggested that he wasn’t maintaining a long enough period of rest. The Captain hoped that he hadn’t chosen to start any work already today.

Bridger walked past the moon pool, but the teenager wasn’t there. Darwin wasn’t in the tank either, so his search continued.

Entering the mess hall, he inwardly relaxed when he spotted the person he was looking for, sitting at a table, facing away from him and talking quietly to the head chef, Don.

Good Morning, Captain,” Don greeted him.

Lucas raised his head and turned in his seat at the mention of the Captain. “Hi,” he said with a slight smile. There was a fork in his hand, which he laid aside on the table.

Come to join us for a coffee, Sir?” Don queried. “Lucas was just enjoying another one of my mother’s recipes. Lasagne, made with loads of cheese on top. Probably the wrong time of the day for such a heavy dish, but our young friend here doesn’t seem to mind.”

No, I am afraid not, Don, maybe later. I have already had my two cup quota for the morning before ten a.m,” Nathan answered.

Bridger moved around to the other side of the table, taking in the almost finished plate of food in front of the teenager, and the half-empty glass of juice. He was very pleased to see him eating, no matter what it was.

I hope I am not interrupting you from finishing, Lucas?” Bridger commented. “Carol used to make quite a mean lasagne herself. It is one of my favourites. I will have to try your mother’s recipe sometime to compare, Don.”

Anytime, Captain,” Don replied. “There is plenty available, and I will have to make a few new batches before the hordes descend on this place for dinner tonight. I asked this young man to be my taste tester for the morning, making sure that my efforts were satisfactory. Lucas here has been trying my first attempt of the day.”

Are his efforts satisfactory, Lucas?” Bridger asked, playing along. It was great to hear that Don had taken positive steps forward this morning in encouraging the boy to eat. He may not have bothered if they waited for him to make the decision himself.

It’s great,” Lucas reported. “I don’t think I am going to be able to do your portion sizing the justice it deserves, Don. But in my humble opinion, you can never have too much cheese,” he added with a grin. He picked up the glass and finished drinking the juice, but pushed the plate of remaining food away.

No problem, Lucas, I think you did just great,” Don remarked. “Apart from judging my food, Captain, the two of us were sitting here discussing ex-wives. Or in his case, yet to be girlfriends,” he directed towards the shy teenager.

Lucas coped the joke and was happy enough to reject the premise with a healthy helping of sarcasm. “Let me see, fourteen years of age, the place where I currently live is classified, and I don’t know how long I am going to be here. I don’t have a driver’s license or my own car , no money on hand to buy flowers or presents, and no job with a steady pay-check. I am not totally sure what poor girl would be interested with all those sparkling positive traits. I am definitely not looking at the moment, but maybe some day,” he added, laughing at the very suggestion.

‘Thank the heavens for that’ Bridger thought to himself, not wanting to dash the young man’s romantic future entirely. There was enough on his plate at the moment, without trying to complicate it any further. Lucas didn’t believe that where he was living was a permanent option, so that was an opinion that needed work in order to change.

Please don’t listen to any of Krieg’s advice on that subject,” Don pleaded. Ben was a fine person and very charismatic when it came to paying attention to the ladies, but he was known for his many spectacular failing attempts at flirting. Although he had been married once, Ben wasn’t ready for another serious relationship or settling down either.

Bridger and Lucas were both smirking at the chef’s idle remark.

Wherever Ben is right now, he probably feels like his ears are burning, and has no idea why,” Don commented casually, chuckling as he tried to envisage the indignant scowl on Krieg’s face if he was seated at the same table.

Lucas stopped laughing, and turned his head, glancing around the room and towards the doors, “I haven’t seen him yet this morning at all. Where is Ben today anyway?”

I haven’t seen him in here for breakfast either,” Don commented, but then saw the brief expression that crossed the Captain’s face. Apparently Bridger knew the answer.

I have some matters I need to attend to on the Bridge,” Nathan announced, skipping over the teenager’s question about Ben. “I came in here because I was looking for you, Lucas.”

The teenager fired two short questions back at Bridger, “You did? About what?”

Kristin wanted me to remind you that she needs to see you this morning,” Bridger answered. “When you are finished there, I have something I wanted to talk to you about in my quarters.”

The Captain’s subterfuge didn’t seem to working, with the boy’s expression changing to one of suspicion. The part about Kristin was straightforward enough, he expected that she might be checking up on him sometime today. Bridger was being entirely too vague, and there was nothing accidental about the choice of venue. Bridger was choosing somewhere private for the two of them to ‘talk’, so his wariness level had been raised.

I will come with you to the Bridge before going to see Kristin,” Lucas stated. “I want to talk to Commander Ford about the work that I have been doing for him.”

Don, I have some other matters that I need to discuss with you later today as well,” Bridger commented, hoping that the chef wouldn’t ask for him to elaborate in front of the teenager.

I am always here, Captain,” Don answered, but didn’t miss the expression on Lucas’ face.

Thank you for the food, Don,” Lucas said as he got up from the table, and headed out of the mess hall.

Maybe what the Captain wanted to talk to them about today was completely unrelated, but he could see the wheels of the teenager’s sharp mind turning already. He hoped that Bridger didn’t take too long to tell the boy what was going on.


As they walked to the Bridge, Lucas looked over at the Captain, waiting for him to start a conversation. When the man didn’t, he knew something was definitely on his mind. Suspicion began to change into concern. Admiral Noyce may have been talking to Bridger, and that was the reason for the privacy and the hedging.

Approaching the dome doors to the Bridge, the siren wailed to signal their presence, and the hydraulics kicked into gear, slowly parting the two heavy structures and allowing them access.

Captain on deck,” Chief Crocker announced and providing the appropriate salute of respect along with the other crew members present.

As you were people,” Bridger responded, returning the gesture.

Commander Ford approached, “Good morning, Captain. And Lucas.”

Good morning, Commander, how are the preparations going that I ordered?” Bridger questioned, deliberately leaving out the place name.

Proceeding nicely, and we should be under way within the next hour, Sir,” Ford answered dutifully. “Commander Hitchcock has been informed of your orders, but I think she is waiting for a fuller explanation from you about our intended destination.”

Morning,” Lucas said politely. “The SeaQuest is going somewhere?” Bridger may have a valid reason for being secretive, because he had orders of his own to carry out.

Bridger sighed inwardly, wishing that Lucas had not picked up on that so quickly until he had a chance for them to talk.

Didn’t you tell me that you wanted to discuss something with Commander Ford?” Bridger asked, changing the subject.

You wanted to see me, Lucas?” Ford asked the teenager. In the back of his mind, he was going over everything that he had heard in the Ward Room.

Ah, yes I did, but its not that important right now. It sounds like you and the Captain have other work to do,” Lucas replied. Back in the mess hall he had made a mental list of things he wanted to bring up to the Commander. Having heard that SeaQuest maybe going somewhere, he found his mind wandering and forgetting what they were.

There was one other matter that he did want to bring up before exiting the Bridge. Halfway through the silent walk he and the Captain had taken, Lucas realised that Bridger had completely glanced over his earlier question about Ben’s whereabouts.

Commander have you seen Ben this morning during your shift?” Lucas enquired. “I haven’t seen him at all, and Don says he didn’t have breakfast this morning either.”

I did see Ben this morning,” Ford answered truthfully. “Krieg reported to me this morning that he didn’t get much sleep last night, so he asked me to change his roster. He is in his cabin at the moment, catching up.” The man could see Lucas mulling over his answer, trying to decide if he was being told the full story or not.

Was he feeling sick?” Lucas asked with concern. “Did anybody try and find out if something was bothering Ben?” Krieg wasn’t the type of person to feign illness, or let a lot of things get under his skin. Usually his personality was the opposite and Ben was able to put a positive spin on most situations. If his friend was awake during the night, then there must have been a reason behind it.

Ford and Bridger were beginning to see Lucas’ worry about his friend grow. They wished that he kept half of that for himself.

I was planning on showing him the completed software program that I have been working on for him to help with his inventory system,” Lucas explained. “I was going to use a few hours this morning to demonstrate to him how to use it. But it is not urgent, it can wait. I went past his cabin when I first woke up to tell him, but nobody was there when I knocked. If he is sleeping now, I will wait until later in the day to tell him.”

I am sure that Krieg is just fine, Lucas,” Ford said, trying to quell the teenager’s worry for the absent Supply Officer. “Ben reported to a few of us, including the Captain that he was awake for a considerable amount of time last night.”

That is correct, Ben did mention that, and he looked tired to me this morning,” Bridger commented, thankful that Jonathan had kept to the basic facts.

Well I wish he had come and found me, I would have kept him company if he couldn’t sleep,” Lucas remarked. “I was wandering the corridors myself last night at various times, but we didn’t cross paths.” Both men were confirming what he already knew, but nobody was coming up with a valid enough reason.

You were awake a lot last night too?” Bridger asked, trying to sound like the teenager’s admission was something he was hearing for the first time. “Was there something bothering you that you want to talk about?”

No,” Lucas answered a little too quickly. The one word response giving him away that some problem had been plaguing him. “Like I told you near the moon pool yesterday, sleep is over-rated. Some nights it takes quite a while for sleep to find me.” ‘If it ever does at all’ echoing inside his brain.

The Captain and Commander exchanged knowing glances at the teenager’s comment of having trouble sleeping. They were surprised at his minor slip and how honest he was being.

I have some boring Captaincy work to do here for the next fifteen minutes,” he told the boy. “Why don’t you head down to see Kristin and I will meet you in my quarters after that like we arranged?”

Sure, I can do that,” Lucas replied. There was an air of mystery surrounding everything the Captain was doing this morning. “I will go and see Kristin before she comes looking for me.”

The two adult men watched the teenager walk towards the dome doors, but they also saw him turn his head around and look directly back at them with a questioning expression as he exited the Bridge. Thankfully all of the secrecy would soon be over.


Lucas is already guessing that something is going on, Captain,” Ford pointed out. “He has this natural intuitiveness and can pick out small details that other people wouldn’t even think twice about.”

Yes, so I noticed,” Bridger commented in return. “Let’s really hope that he agrees to my offer, because I haven’t got an alternative plan to fall back on if he refuses.”

Ford was standing by respectfully, but like the teenager, he was hoping to hear a whole lot more about this plan that Bridger was hatching and counting on to work. He was the first crew member to be advised that the SeaQuest was pulling out of Pearl Harbour and headed elsewhere.

Commander, I know you are wanting to know the details too,” Bridger started. “Admiral Noyce has given me four days leave. As I mentioned to you earlier, our destination is the Florida Keys. How long do you estimate before we reach them, taking into account the weather, ocean currents and the speed of the vessel?”

From the calculations that I made over the last hour, Captain, I can report that we should cover that distance with no trouble. The seas around that area can be unpredictable this time of year, but we should be there within the next twenty-four to thirty hours.”

Thank you, Jonathan, at this stage, I have managed to convince Doctor Westphalen to accompany me on this little excursion. Now it is just Lucas that I need to talk to,” Bridger explained. “The other details that I hinted at, include arranging to borrow a sea launch for use in the early hours of tomorrow morning.”

Kristin is speaking to her people now and appointing someone appropriate to take her place for that short time,” Bridger advised. “Once I have spoken to Lucas, I also need to have Ben arrange the launch and make sure that it is fully stocked. I told Don, the head chef that I need to speak to him as well, but couldn’t give him any details yet because Lucas was in the mess hall finishing a meal.”

Ford was surprised that the Captain had spoken to the doctor and that she had agreed to come along. He would have thought that persuading her would be just as tough as Lucas.

Walking over to his Captain’s chair and sitting down, Bridger brought up a map of the Florida Keys area. “I gave you orders to head towards here,” he pointed out to his second-in-command. “I am sorry that I couldn’t be more specific until now. This is where you and Commander Hitchcock will be headed to with the rest of the crew on-board.”

Key West,” Ford recognized, following the Captain’s finger trail.

I am sure that I don’t have to tell you or Katie what is there?” Bridger commented.

N.A.S. Naval Station, Sir,” Jonathan answered, nodding his head. “I am familiar with the place and how big it is. I have been there, but I believe Katie has spent more time there than me.”

That probably works more in my favour then, Commander, because I am going to ask you to be a gentleman on this occasion and for you to step aside for her,” Bridger replied. “When you reach Key West, I would like Commander Hitchcock to take over the Captaincy for that few short days.”

Sir?” Ford questioned. He had no problem with Katie taking over the top job, she was a skilled officer. There were times when they co-operated together and shared command as Captain. Both of them were aspiring to reach such a rank in the future based on their service records and experience.

Getting the leave from Admiral Noyce came with strings attached, just like I told Doctor Westphalen,” Bridger explained. “Upon arrival there, he is expecting either yourself or her to conduct a number of tours for some of the top brass and personnel there. The Admiral cannot be there himself due to other commitments, but he is wanting us to put on a good show for some of the ambassadors. He wants to show SeaQuest off, and prove to them that she is operational whenever we are needed.”

I am certain Katie will relish the opportunity, Captain,” Ford remarked.

You are a fine commanding officer, Jonathan, and I am not trying to steal your thunder, or take away your chance to command when I plan to be elsewhere,” Nathan asserted. “I thought her thorough knowledge of the SeaQuest’s external and internal workings and electronic systems on this occasion were what the Admiral was looking for. I promise that was the only reason.”

Will you be requiring anybody to pilot the launch for you, Captain?” Ford enquired. “I can arrange anybody you like. Tim O’Neill, Ben Krieg, even Miguel Ortiz all have the required experience and skill.”

Thank you but no, I did consider asking Ben Krieg to accompany us, especially if Lucas does agree to come,” Bridger answered. “Upon further reflection, if he does say yes, I am going to pilot the launch myself, for just the three of us. I am sure that Ben will try and object loudly to being left behind.”

Krieg will certainly be trying to put his name forward to pilot the launch,” Jonathan agreed. The Captain’s assessment of the Morale officer wanting to go with them definitely correct.”

I am planning to take Kristin and Lucas to my island, Jonathan,” Bridger stated. “I know that many of you have been curious about where it is. I don’t want to broadcast its location to everybody in the world, but it has become apparent that I cannot keep it a secret forever either.”

Wow, that is very generous of you, Sir,” Ford remarked. ‘So, they were about to find out where this mysterious island was that Bridger had been living on before being lured back by Admiral Noyce’ he thought to himself.

The Admiral was offering other teenager friendly alternatives for Lucas, but I turned him down and told him that I have other more mundane ideas in mind,” Bridger explained further. “Plus with the SeaQuest being that close to home, Darwin can be allowed to make his own way back to the secluded lagoon he is familiar with. He will know where to go, and I hope that having him there will be of benefit to Lucas.”

I will speak to Katie myself and tell her about taking over command in my absence. Unfortunately by doing that, she will have to wait just a little longer to find out the location of my island.”

On the fourth day, I will make arrangements for yourself, and the members of our little network, including Ben to join me on my island, along with Kristin and Lucas. I will arrange for some additional supplies to be brought with you so that we can have a barbecue. It will be an overnight stay for those who choose to do so. I don’t have enough extra guest rooms at the moment to offer everybody who comes, so tents and sleeping bags it is for those who agree to attend.”

I cannot see there being many objections to that type of lodgings just for one night, Sir,” Ford responded. “Will we need to take a launch there as well and directions from you?” With this statement, he had already confirmed that he would be accepting the invitation. He couldn’t deny that he was more than curious himself, and it offered a way of learning more about Bridger. The U.E.O. files on the Captain provided by Noyce may have given some background information, but that didn’t make up for first-hand observations.

Bridger smirked widely at the Commander. “No, Jonathan, I am going to keep the location a surprise even from you a bit longer yet. Along with yourself and Ben Krieg, the other people to attend if they say yes are Miguel and Tim. I want to maintain a relaxed atmosphere by inviting crew members that Lucas is already comfortable spending time with, and keep the numbers low.”

Once I have spoken to Lucas and he agrees to come, then I will approach Tim and Miguel in person to invite them along.”

On that fourth morning, I will arrange for a man by the name of Eddie Adamson to pick up those attending from Key West, along with anything else that I will need. He is a long time friend, and has a large cruise boat called the Sally. He conducts daily tours that start from Miami and continue throughout the Florida Keys. He will know where to bring you.”

Glancing down at his watch, Nathan wrapped up their conversation. “Now I just have to talk to Lucas, and we have already past that fifteen minutes by several more. He will be waiting for me. Anything else that needs to be discussed, can wait until after I talk to him.”

Good luck, Captain,” Ford said with sincerity, hoping the teenager would accept Bridger’s plans were based on good intentions.


Lucas walked into the science department with his hands in his pockets, looking for Kristin. The doctor has finished a meeting with one of her senior staff members, Joshua Levine, asking if he would stand in for her as acting Medical officer. The reason for her absence was kept out of their discussions, and he didn’t pursue matters further by asking her to explain.

Levine had gone back to his own duties, and Kristin was intending to talk to Jane Edwards again about some testing that she wanted to set up. Before she could search for Jane, Lucas approached her from the opposite direction.

Morning, Doc, the Captain said that you wanted to see me,” he greeted her.

Good morning, Lucas,” Kristin returned. “Yes, I did tell him that. Time to me to check those stitches of yours.”

Do we really have to do that today?” the teenager asked with reluctance. “Every time I come down here, you only want take my blood or check up on me.”

It won’t take very long,” the doctor said, noting that he wasn’t going to be combative as the two of them started walking towards med-bay. “Have you eaten today?”

There you go asking that same question again,” he said in mock protest, but with a small smile. “I just came from the mess hall. Don and the Captain can vouch for my presence and confirm that I have eaten breakfast.” He was still getting used to her asking him about his meal times. One way or the other he was probably going to have to get used to it. Someone caring this much about his eating habits and general health was uncharted territory.

Kristin closed the door to the room as they entered, “Shirt please,” she instructed. “How have your pain levels been lately?”

My hip isn’t bothering me so much now. I can even sit down on the floor again, but it starts to ache if I stand too long in one position,” Lucas reported to her. “The stitches don’t hurt, but they have been getting itchy.” Kristin didn’t bring up that Ben had reported him sitting on the floor during the night, a few hours ago.

That is a good sign that your stitches are healing properly,” Kristin informed him as she warmed her hands and began removing the protective coverings. “The bruising is still present, but it shouldn’t get any worse or darker from this point. It is starting to show signs of changing colour on the outer edges, but may take another couple of weeks to disappear altogether.”

My stitches don’t pull when I am moving about now, or lean up against something. I don’t feel them either when someone pokes or prods wrong,” Lucas stated, feeling her gentle touch.

I am very pleased to hear that,” Kristin commented. “In another four or five days, these stitches should be ready to come out. I will make another assessment about them at that time.” The doctor noted that the teenager still needed to gain some weight. Internally, she was still berating his father for the punishment that he had endured.

You can put your shirt back on now,” Kristin advised him. “Anything else going on that you haven’t told me about this morning?”

Nothing comes to mind,” Lucas affirmed. Then he thought for a minute and wondered if she knew about Ben. Seeing as how she was adamant about keeping tabs on everybody on-board, maybe she knew something about his friend.

Can I ask you a question, Kristin?” The tone of his voice made her look up and give him her full attention.

Of course you can,” the doctor said, finishing making a note in his file. It was the same voice laced with concern that he had used the night he had found Nathan asleep in his armchair.

Do you know of anything that might be bothering Ben at the moment? I mean the guy is usually so outgoing about everything. Sounded rather odd to me.”

‘Apart from being worried about you’ she wanted to tell him. “I did see Ben, quite early this morning, he admitted to feeling tired. Why do you ask?”

That is what Commander Ford and the Captain reported about him too,” Lucas replied. “I haven’t seen him about today, and Don confirmed that he hadn’t been to the mess hall for breakfast. When I was on the Bridge not too long ago, Ford confirmed that Ben had asked for his shift today to be altered. Apparently he is in his cabin now sleeping because he was awake for the majority of the night.”

I am sure that Ben is fine, Lucas,” Kristin said, trying to quell his concern. “He organised the party that we attended last night and was pushing everybody else there to mingle and have a good time. This morning, he and I were sharing a cup of coffee and I didn’t notice that anything was troubling him.”

Yeah, well I hope that is the case then,” Lucas commented, pleased to hear the doctor’s observations. Maybe he was just over-reacting. “Like I told the Captain and Commander Ford earlier on the Bridge, I was awake for a considerable amount of time last night as well, but I didn’t see Ben about in the corridors anywhere.”

What was causing you to lose sleep last night, may I ask?” Kristin queried, surprised that the teenager was owning up to his nocturnal habits.

Whatever was keeping Ben awake can’t be all that bad then, as you mentioned, he seemed fine at those other times,” Lucas stated, completely glossing over the doctor’s question about himself. “Maybe I was worrying about nothing. Anyway I can’t stay longer,” he added too quickly, avoiding any further chance to discuss his sleeping pattern.

Lucas headed to the door, but turned around to speak to her, “I promised you yesterday that the software program that I was creating for you was almost complete and ready for demonstration. I can now reveal that it is finished and I can show you and your staff when you are ready.”

Thank you for doing that, and I know my staff will appreciate all the work you have done,” Kristin praised, unable to keep herself from making the next comment. “I hope you didn’t push yourself too hard to get it finished?”

Kristin wanted to address the reason for his haste, but didn’t want to create waves with the teenager. “Do you need to go somewhere now?” she asked. The doctor noted that it may not have been his concern about Ben, or her question about his own restless night that was causing him to act with some hesitation as he prepared to leave.

The Captain asked me to meet him in his quarters when I was finished here with you,” Lucas told her. “He mentioned that there was something that he wanted to talk me about.”

The teenager had not suspected that Kristin already knew the reason behind Nathan’s request.

Do you know what he wants to talk to me about?” Lucas asked casually. “He wouldn’t even give me the slightest hint or a clue.”

Kristin didn’t want to outright lie to him, and released the breath that she was holding as he continued out the door of med-bay without expecting her answer.

‘Nathan, you are doing to need all the luck you can get’ she thought to herself.


Bridger was coming down the corridor to his own quarters, muttering to himself about being late, and predicting that Lucas may not be in such a charitable mood. To his surprise, the teenager himself turned the corner a few seconds later.

Sorry, I got caught up talking to Kristin down in med-bay,” Lucas apologised. He was relieved to see that the Captain was only turning up now too. “I thought you may have been waiting around for me.”

The Captain gave a small laugh in return, “No, seems like we are both right on time. Here I was thinking that you were going to be waiting inside for me. I got caught up talking to Commander Ford a lot longer than I anticipated too.”

The two of them entered the spacious quarters together, with Nathan closing the door.

You can take a seat on the new sofa, or wherever you feel most comfortable,” Bridger offered. The man was pacing back and forth, trying to mask his own wavering and stalling tactics.

This is fine for now,” Lucas replied, choosing to sit on the chair beside the holographic desk.

I trust that your check up with Kristin went smoothly enough?” Bridger asked with genuine curiosity.

From what he could see, the boy appeared to be in fairly good spirits, and had attended this impromptu meeting upon his own accord.

Yeah, I told her that my hip wasn’t giving me so much trouble now except for odd occasions when I stand up too long,” the teenager answered truthfully. “Kristin changed the dressings on my stitches and told me that she may be able to remove them soon. She made a few other comments too, but mostly a good report that everything is healing like it should.”

I am very pleased to hear all of that coming from her,” Bridger remarked with a smile. “Even better to hear that you are not hurting so much any more.”

Ben’s comments about what methods he was using to cope kept echoing back at him. Nathan was finding it difficult to form a structured sentence that wasn’t going to make him sound like a bumbling idiot and tripping over his own words.

The vibe in the room between them started to change and the teenager couldn’t shake the hairs on the back of his neck rising. The teenager was beginning to have that ‘deja vu’ feeling all over again. When Bridger had told him about the crew finding out about his darkest secret. A feeling of dread began to emerge and descend, and he could scarcely sit still on the chair.

The expression on Lucas’ face changed, and he wanted to get this over and done with. “Captain, what is going on?”

That obvious huh,” Bridger said, stopping his pacing, knowing that his own nervousness in broaching the subject was causing the boy to become more suspicious about his true intentions.

‘Just tell me’ Lucas wanted to say, but he found his mouth drying out and he could hear the sound of his own heartbeat in his chest.

Bridger thought the best way to start was to applaud the efforts he had been making in general on the vessel to help others. “Word has reached my ears from a number of different sources about the great work that you have been doing here lately.”

Lucas was about to respond, but decided not to at the last minute, allowing the Captain to continue. He had no idea who had been talking about him or what they had been saying.

Unfortunately his next partial sentence could not have come out more wrong for Bridger.

I have made arrangements for you to be able to leave the SeaQuest……,”

He didn’t even finish before he noted the boy’s complexion turn a few shades paler.

For a moment Lucas felt like all of the air had suddenly rushed out of his lungs at once. He stood up, his face a mixture of displeasure and borderline panic.

With great effort and restraint, and his voice completely devoid of any emotion, he responded as best he could, “I understand. I will go and get my stuff together.”

The teenager was about to take a large step backwards away the Captain, wanting to escape and not stay another minute in the room to embarrass himself. You should have known better! he shouted harshly at himself.

Nathan placed his hand on the boy’s arm, stopping him from leaving, but could feel the muscular tremours. Fear that was what he was coursing strongly through his veins and feeding his insecurity. But why?

Bridger could see the crestfallen face and the sombre mood that was threatening to engulf him. He didn’t want to allow Lucas leave upset this time, like he had done from med-bay a few days ago when Kristin and Ben were present.

Nathan noted the boy’s attempt to avoid all eye contact and his efforts to withdraw from any kind of physical touch. “Hey hey, what is going on? Please talk to me for a minute,” he pleaded, trying to figure out the reason for the boy’s sudden defensiveness.

The teenager’s facial expression changed again briefly to one of contempt and defiance, “Don’t concern yourself about me, Captain! This is nothing that I haven’t dealt with before. I guess I owe you something for putting up with me for this long. I have managed to get by on my own in the past.”

Bridger was taking him off SeaQuest permanently. By allowing himself to grow complacent in recent days, he had forgotten the most important rule that he had set for himself when first coming aboard. Don’t let anybody get too close.

In his mind, Bridger went over the words he had uttered, and then he was silently kicking himself for not making it clearer from the start. Any residual anger Lucas was holding onto, dissolved in an instant.

Slowly lifting his face towards the Captain, he was begging to understand the man’s change of mind. Emotions threatening to take over any rational thought, “I don’t have any place else to go,” Lucas whispered. You promised that I wouldn’t have to go back!

No, no, that is not what I meant at all,” Bridger pledged. “I am sorry, I should have worded my offer a whole lot better than that. Please forgive me.” The teenager thought that he was being removed from the boat. “I promised that you wouldn’t need to leave here unless you felt safe, and I meant that,” he reiterated with emphasis.

Lucas stared back at the man, with a small voice screaming inside his head. For a few moments, the teenager didn’t know if he could to believe him or not, but he was relying so much on and wanting this man’s words to be truthful. Very few people had ever offered to help him before, and he found himself clinging to the very notion with an unquantifiable desperation. Bridger was the first man that he had begun to trust or laid any kind of hope in being able to keep him safe from his father.

I am so sorry, Lucas,” the Captain beseeched. “I was trying to mix up my words and sound positive about how much I have appreciated the work you have been doing on-board lately. In the end all I did was the exact opposite.”

I am going to take a break from SeaQuest for four days, starting from tomorrow morning. I asked you to come in here to talk because I wanted to ask you in person to come with me,” Nathan revealed.

But I thought that you…..,” unable to finish the sentence. Solace was pouring out of him, and his limbs felt like they were turning to jelly. He stumbled backwards, forcing himself to sit down in the chair before he ended up on the floor in an untidy heap. He was unable to hide the sheer relief from his face and body language.

Bridger pulled the other chair near the desk over beside him, sitting down and leaning in closer, and giving the teenager all the time he needed to recover. He wanted to keep apologising and keep saying the word ‘sorry’ but that wasn’t the answer Lucas was seeking right now. He placed a supportive arm across the teenager’s slim shoulders.

For a minute there……..,” Lucas began but stopped. “My heart and brain always think the worst first and occasionally jump to the wrong conclusion. Like I have mentioned before, it is something that happens automatically,” he added with a hollow laugh. Slowly he exhaled, letting out a breath and demonstrating how much fear he had been holding inside for those few brief moments.

You are not going back to him,” Nathan reassured him, placing his free hand over the boy’s and squeezing gently, meaning it as an unspoken solemn vow. He was delighted to feel the teenager return the gesture with his own hand and grasp his tightly in silent thanks.


Bridger allowed the teenager some time to regain some composure, berating himself for such a monumental blunder.

Let me ask you again,” Nathan began speaking softly. “And this time I will do it properly.”

Lucas gave a small smile in return, feeling stupid for such an over-reaction, but knowing that the emotions had bubbled up too quickly and taken control away from him.

Lucas, I am going to be taking a small break away from SeaQuest starting from tomorrow morning. I would like to invite you to come along.”

Before answering, the teenager decided to do a little more background checking and ask a couple of questions of his own. “What is this break you are talking about taking all about? Why did you decide that now was a good time to do it?”

In the back of his mind, he remembered about finding Bridger asleep in his quarters early one evening. He had even mentioned to Kristin that it can’t be easy doing his job all of the time. Even though he had only reclaimed the Captaincy of the vessel in recent weeks, maybe he was feeling tired and stressed. The answer might be taking a few days to relax and recharge.

The Captain didn’t want to dob Ben in completely or blurt out that he was the one needing to take a break.

Admiral Noyce needs SeaQuest to start travelling towards the Florida Keys today, and be ready to give a demonstration to some military personnel and foreign ambassadors over a few days. Commander Hitchcock is going to be asked to show them around and be tour guide. I want to get away while the maintenance work on-board is coming to an end and she is fully operational. After that time, this place is going to get too busy with new missions for me to be able to take leave.”

Where are you planning to go?” Lucas asked, pulling his hand away from Bridger, and standing up. He was trying to get the blood circulating again through his system, and quash any lingering anxiety.

Well since I we are going to be in that vicinity, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to go home to my place,” Bridger answered with a smile. “I was going to show you around my island?”

Your island? The one that you have been trying so hard to keep a secret all this time,” Lucas teased lightly, still silently deciding if he did want to accept. The Captain noted that he hadn’t answered yet.

The teenager was rubbing his hands together, “What would we be doing there if I decide to go?” unable to stop fidgeting as he tried his best to to explain the reason for his cautiousness. Looking back up at Bridger as he spoke, “Nobody has ever asked me to go anywhere before,” he admitted.

With that statement, Nathan could see that it wasn’t a simple case of saying yes or no to his invitation for Lucas, and he understood better the reason for his delay in answering. “Relaxing mostly and slowing down to take in the salt air and the warm water.”

I thought we could both use some good company ourselves, so it wouldn’t be just me and you going,” Bridger forewarned, “I thought there was someone else here on-board who has been under pressure too and could use some down-time too.”

Who else did you invite?” Lucas asked, more than curious. At least that meant that the Captain wasn’t doing this purely for his benefit.

I asked Kristin, and she readily subscribed to the idea,” Bridger replied. “She had been trying to find my island and talk about my research before even coming on-board SeaQuest. I think you will agree that she has been doing some long hours as head of the science department.”

Not to mention having to play doctor to me at the same time,” Lucas interjected. Then deliberately taking a deep breath, he gave the Captain his answer. “I will come with you.” My father shouldn’t be able to find me on a secluded island in the middle of the ocean.

You will?” Bridger said enthusiastically with a grin, but wanting to double check the teenager was comfortable with the decision he was making.

Yes, I don’t have any ideas that I can contribute, but I mean it could be fun. I don’t know if you have enough room at your place,” Lucas said jokingly, some butterflies of excitement of his own beginning to form at the prospect of going to a new place connected directly to the Captain. Up until now the man had been adamant about keeping his personal sanctuary a secret, so to be invited, along with Kristin was something completely outside the box and unexpected.

That is great,” Nathan confirmed, very pleased after the disastrous start he had been facing. “We have spend quite a bit of time today getting everything organised, but we have enough hands to get sorted.

The weather should be to our advantage this time of year. The rains are a month or two away and the humidity should be fairly low. Have you ever been to Florida or the anywhere near the keys?”

No, I haven’t travelled much at all before, and only remember living in California,” Lucas answered.

Our aquatic friend will be joining us too. Once the SeaQuest reaches the warmer waters of the Florida Keys, I will let him out, and he can swim home. It will take a few hours for us to cover the same distance in one of the launches. Don’t worry, Darwin knows the way better than I do and will probably beat us there.”

Darwin is coming too?” Lucas asked the rhetorical question, but then his grin dipped a little, “I won’t be able to go swimming with him once we are there though, due to my stitches.”

The Captain had just confirmed that the mammal would be joining them, which was so great. He hadn’t even given any thought to the dolphin being left behind, and he would have felt guilty in doing so. There were plenty of people on-board who would offer to take care of him, but it wouldn’t be the same thing.

You will be able to see and interact with him everyday, even if you can’t get into the water. There is no way I would be able to stop Darwin from going home, when we are going to be so close,” Bridger commented. “The lagoon is his natural environment and familiar to him and where is spent the most amount of time with me.”

Well I will help out where I can about getting ready,” Lucas proclaimed. “This whole idea is your brainstorm, but I think there is someone else that should be considered for needing a break too.”

Who?” Bridger replied, noting that the teenager had someone specific in mind.

I think that Ben may need a break away from here too,” Lucas replied. “I was worried when you and Commander Ford mentioned about him not sleeping well all of last night.”

Bridger gave a smile at the teenager’s thoughtfulness, “Admiral Noyce isn’t going to let all of my team go away all at the same time, especially when he is trying to show her off. But don’t worry, I already thought ahead for you about Ben.”

You did?”

Yes, and I do agree that he has been working hard around here, a lot of the crew have been, given the amount of maintenance that has been necessary. And the continual problems with some areas,” Nathan explained. “On the last morning, I will make arrangements for a friend of mine to pick up a few crew members that I will be inviting along to a barbecue that I plan to host on the last night. Only a few people will be invited to begin with, I am still trying to keep the location of my island a secret for a little while longer.”

That sounds neat,” Lucas stated. It sounded like the Captain had thought things through fairly well in relation to Darwin and addressing the problem of other people wanting to come along too.

I expect for Ben to protest loudly at not being able to go, and I did honestly consider bringing him along from the beginning. However, for the next few days, I will only be inviting you, Kristin and Darwin of course. That will allow the three of us to enjoy a few days without worrying about any work or needing a schedule.”

Have you ever been on vacation before, Lucas?”

The teenager gave an unfinished response as the two of them started walking out of the Captain’s quarters and into the corridor.

Nope, never…….” the teenager replied casually, as though it didn’t make a difference or matter.

Lucas failed to note the disquieted expression on Bridger’s face in hearing the answer to his question. Such lost opportunities during person’s childhood could never be gained or replaced. Parents were only blessed with so many chances involving their children and to make them count. Lawrence Wolenczak couldn’t even be bothered to make the effort in his young son’s life.

Let’s go and tell everybody our good news,” Bridger suggested. “After that, you and I need to start making a list of everything we are going to be taking with us, and anything we could possibly need over four days.”

To be continued…………………………

Jules

Author Notes:

Sorry folks, Lucas isn’t around a lot in this chapter except for a few scenes apart from sleeping. I am still building everything very carefully and slowly towards certain points and I am deliberately taking my time to do it. There are lots of new hints and clues left behind in many scenes for later.

The next chapter will be learning all about Bridger’s Island for future reference in many plots. I am not sure yet if it everything will be covered in one chapter or if there will need to be two. There will be a lot of Bridger and Lucas spending time together. The next chapter will not only introduce the island, but some new and multiple permanent characters.

In a few places now, I have made specific mentions of certain dishes. I know during SeaQuest episodes that real meat products like beef had been outlawed and illegal. I also know that they had meat substitutes, hydroponically grown, modified and genetically altered foods. So any meals in earlier chapters, this one or in future ones, that are meant to look like dishes containing meat, for example lasagne, that we would know now are meant to look like those we would be familiar with. I know some of these dishes could be done without the meat or to look differently, but that is not what I have chosen for now. Please note that any dishes containing cheese are purely invented by me for the story and characters (I cannot consume any dairy foods at all).

The question from Bridger to Lucas directly about whether he has been to Florida before, has specific meaning and reference to a future story Triggering the Nightmare

The ending scene between Lucas and Bridger was only a slight homage to the episode Whale Song where Nathan tells Lucas that he is getting pulled off SeaQuest for other reasons. Lucas is still believing that the whole idea of being on SeaQuest is temporary, no matter how many promises he gets and from who. I need that to continue for a while yet, so I wanted that to be his first reaction to Bridger’s poorly worded offer for a break.

In that brief moment, Lucas forgot about the offer from his friend Shep that was made about coming and staying with him if he needed to.

Thank you for reading. Enjoy. Any reviews gratefully accepted and cherished forever. This story still has quite a while to go yet. The good stuff is yet to come. There isn’t so much hurt in this story for Lucas, but hopefully the angst will start to ramp up nicely. There is a lot more of that to come yet.

Tribute to Richard Herd – Admiral William Noyce – passed away 26th May 2020. Thank you for the memories, your character will live on in my pages and stories forever.

Jules

Chapter Three – Taken

FALSE WITNESS

By Jules

Author Notes – For this story, there will be mentions of stories that are yet to be written but are earlier than this one. This story was written a long time ago (over 17 years ago), but I felt there were parts that needed more and that were rushed or not complete enough, and I wanted some more scenes in certain areas that include some of my new arcs.

For this plot, it is assumed that Adam Cartwright has returned to the Ponderosa permanently after completing his college years. And I want to include some good and caring scenes between Adam and Joe as well as some of the other times.

There are a lot of stories to come in the time line before this one yet, where events have shaped Joe’s personality and caused him to have mixed feelings and emotions for someone of his age in different situations. There are other times where his usual cheeky self shines through as he gets a little older. But I am trying not to give the all of the plots away for those stories, so there are clues, but perhaps not the full story about some characters and events.

There have been a lot of additions made to what was previously written in this chapter. It has more than doubled in size, and I hope you like the new material. This chapter is long, but I couldn’t split it any earlier. There was even more to come that I will now have to be included in Chapter Four.

Sentences from particular characters where the words are mis-spelt or where it looks like a connecting word or two are missing – are deliberate in some cases. The same thing I do when I write dialogue for Hop Sing. It is done for characters when they are under the influence of alcohol like Frank Richards, but also because that is the way that I have them speaking. Charlie the head foreman is one instance. It is also done in limited cases where I deem the character to have a lower level of education.

Chapter Three – Taken

from the end of the previous chapter:

Outside, the gentle spots of rain started to fall and within a few minutes became heavy soaking rain with flashes of lightening that danced across the sky and rumbles of thunder as the clouds released their burden.

And now the story turns another page:

The nightly air temperature changed dramatically with the heavy showers of rain that had resulted from the approaching afternoon storm. Moisture was still in the air, but the humidity had dropped away, leaving behind the fresh scent of pine needles.

Ben Cartwright had quietly entered his youngest son’s bedroom wanting to check on Joe. This was intended to be his last task for the evening before retiring to bed himself.

The storm outside was still producing bolts of lightning, and rumbles of thunder across the sky.

The thunder had been loud enough on more than one occasion to threaten to wake Joe from his sleep. It was no secret within their close knit family that Little Joe often reacted badly during thunder storms. Perhaps from even earlier when Marie was alive. Ben recalled a few nights when neither of them had gotten much sleep during the night until the noise and howling winds had settled down once morning came.

The fear had grown stronger from when he was very young, about six years old, but the cause had little to do with the absence of his mother. Instead it had come about mostly due to the actions of some ruthless men who had come to the ranch with wicked intentions. Their callous actions that night had set off a chain of events where nobody would have been able to predict the lasting outcome that came about. And those same feelings and emotions had endured and survived to resurface again on countless unsettled night’s such as this one.

The Cartwright family had been assured by their doctor, Paul Martin, that time, support and understanding was what Joe needed. The best diagnosis he had been able to give to them was that Joe’s anxiety would gradually subside and disappear on its own as he grew older.

Adam could see his father fighting his inner desire to get up from his desk and ascend the staircase. He had watched his father battle himself for the past twenty minutes with a mixture of wanting to give Joe space, but hating that the idea that his son may be suffering alone. Joe was a little older now at fifteen, and Ben tried where he could to allow Joe to grow in confidence at his own pace.

Hoss and Adam had both done the same, allowing Joe a little more freedom as he grew into a young man. Perhaps it was a little easier for them than it was their father. He loved all of his sons unconditionally, and wasn’t afraid to show it. For Ben, Joe would always be the one to worry and fret more anxiously about because of him being the youngest.

Adam could see that his father was growing weary. After Hoss had gone to bed, the two of them had spent the remaining hours going over the figures and clauses of their bid by lantern.

“Pa, why don’t you go up to check on, Joe,” Adam suggested. “The lamp in his room has probably burned down now, then you can go get some sleep yourself.”

Ben looked up at his eldest son, giving a warm knowing smile. Adam knew who had caused his attention to stray away from the books. They had all received a good scare today with Joe having to get stitches.

“I don’t want to leave you down here finishing this contract off on your own, son,” Ben replied, lifting his arms over his head and stretching at the taunt muscles. “I have been sitting too long at this desk though.” He loosened the knot tying the neckerchief around his throat, and undid the top button of his shirt. It had been a very long day.

“There isn’t much more to do,” Adam reported. “The figures are all accurate, and the clauses that we want have been included. I am about to head up to bed myself shortly. I have a fairly early start in the morning myself if I want to see this document submitted on time.”

“Alright, I might do just that,” Ben acquiesced as he rose from the chair.

Ben clapped a hand on his son’s black clad shoulder with heartfelt appreciation, wanting to say a few final words. “I must thank you, son, after everything that went on here earlier today with Joseph, you have been a pillar of strength. This contract needed to be finished tonight and you have put in an enormous amount of work to see it completed on time. I am very grateful for you sticking with it.”

“With winter approaching in a couple of months, this ranch is going to need the extra financial stability that comes from such a new and important venture in the area,” Adam explained. “All I did was my small part to add up some figures and try and sell our argument that we are ready with the man power, equipment and trees. The hardest part in all of this is yet to come if we win to actually see it through to fruition and we have to start cutting those logs.”

“We can talk more about it in the morning at breakfast, but I just wanted to say ‘thanks’ tonight,” Ben replied. “This isn’t the first time you have taken on such a challenge with the timber operation, and I have every faith that you will help us achieve our goals on this occasion.”

“Thanks, that means a lot to me,” Adam remarked.

Adam watched his father head up the stairs, leaning back against the chair he was sitting in. Once upon a time he found himself in a similar frame of mind to where Joe currently was. He had wanted to prove himself and insist on how ready he was to others; when in fact it was very obvious how unprepared he was.

It really did mean a lot to him to have his father’s unequivocal approval. When he first started with the responsibilities of the timber operation, he had made enough mistakes to cause him to doubt his own commitment to such a large undertaking on a full-time basis. With time, patience and experience, his efforts and aptitude were finally being rewarded from the men that he employed and his own family believing in him.

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After reaching the landing at the top of the stairs, Ben made sure that his footsteps were a little softer as he approached the closed door to Joe’s bedroom. Pulling on the handle, he pushed the wooden door open and entered.

Walking over to the bed he noted that the blanket was tangled beneath his sleeping son. He stood beside the bed for a few moments, pondering how he was going to solve the problem. Joe must have sensed someone else in the room, and turned over onto his right-side, towards his father. The boy’s peaceful expression changed to a frown and he gave a soft whimper at the pain due to his injured arm and rolled onto his back, changing positions a second time.

The disturbance to his sleep was short lived and he began drifting back to sleep, and Ben was able to fuss with the bedclothes, laying them back over his slumbering son. He placed a gentle hand on his son’s forehead and could feel the low grade fever that was present. Perhaps that was the cause of the blanket being in disarray in the first place. Joe leaned into the coolness of his father’s hand and gave a contented sigh at the familiarity.

“Goodnight, Joseph,” he whispered as carded his hand through those soft dark curls.

Ben padded over to the window, wanting to check that it was closed. As he adjusted the curtains, a distant rumble of thunder could be heard outside. His last task of the evening was to extinguish the small flame that remained from the lamp.

By three a.m., the house was very quiet inside, with all of the occupants sleeping. Ten minutes later, Joe sat up in bed, listening intently and trying to figure out what had awoken him so suddenly. He rubbed at his throat, grimacing at the dryness. His room felt claustrophobic and hot. The curls at the front of his hair were damp with sweat and stuck to his forehead.

Joe thought about calling out to one of his brothers, but decided that he could manage to get his own drink of water to ease his parched throat. Throwing back the covers, he was surprised to see that he was only wearing his pants and no shirt. It was fairly unusual for him to go to bed without changing into a night-shirt.

The stitches in his arm twinged, reminding him that they were there, and Joe turned his head to note the crisp white bandage adorning his upper right arm. Now that he was awake, it was hurting. Maybe that is what had caused his sleep to be disturbed in the middle of the night.

Standing up, he padded across the wooden floor boards, not bothering to put on his robe or any footwear. He was only intending to go downstairs long enough to get a drink of water. He didn’t need to dress up for something so simple when he would be returning within a few minutes.

Opening his door, he listened intently again as he made his way over to the landing above the main stair case. The rest of the household was silent. For a brief moment he thought about going back to retrieve a robe when he shivered in the cooler morning air. Brushing the damp hair on his forehead aside, he continued down the stairs slowly as his eyes adjusted to the darkness.

At the bottom of the stairs, Joe paused, holding onto the bannister, frowning a little at the disorientation he was feeling. Apart from his painful arm, he didn’t have an answer to describe the change in his equilibrium. He had best get his drink of water and go back to bed. A few more hours sleep sounded good to him.

Making it to the kitchen, he stopped at the sink and water pump. Picking up a metal cup that hung from a hook on the back wall, he held it under the tap with his right hand, grimacing as his stitches protested at the movement. Joe used his left hand and pushed the handle up and down twice before he was rewarded with a splash of cool water. The majority of the clear liquid made it into the cup, but some split over the edges onto his hand.

The temperature of the water was much lower at this time of the morning, and helped to quench his thirst and sooth his dry throat on the way down. He finished most of the contents; some remained at the bottom as he set it aside. He should not have drank it so fast. The water was now sloshing about in his stomach uncomfortably and starting to make him a little nauseous.

Joe didn’t remember having any dinner earlier that night, and maybe it was his empty belly that was reacting because he didn’t have anything to eat. There were are few hours missing from his memory. He vaguely recalled Doctor Paul Martin being in his room and tending to his arm, but he didn’t remember falling asleep. There was a bear cub and Hoss helping him, but after climbing into the saddle, the ride home back to the Ponderosa wasn’t so clear.

Reaching up and brushing aside the sweaty curls again, he was beginning to feel too warm, but was confused because he was certain that he had been wearing his sheep-skinned lined coat when the bear had scratched him. He didn’t know where it was, and now he was standing in the kitchen without wearing a shirt.

Tipping the remaining water down the sink, he rehung the cup in its proper position, his aim at the hook skewed, and he had to do it a second time. Walking slowly out of the kitchen, his intention was to go back to his room and lay down on the cool sheets and go back to sleep. He was hoping that his uneasy stomach would subside soon.

Before he could put together a coherent thought, Joe changed direction from the staircase, and laid down on the settee. His eyes slowly drifted closed despite there being no pillow supporting his head. Laying in this position, his body temperature began to climb, with his sleep not deep enough and becoming more restless.

______________________________________________________________________________________

The grandfather clock standing in the living room had just tolled four a.m. when Ben Cartwright woke up in his own bed. Not alarmed exactly, but something was amiss. He listened from the darkness of his room for a moment, trying to pinpoint the reason for his rest being disturbed. He couldn’t hear anybody moving about on the second floor or on the staircase.

Curiosity got the better of him, causing him to get up and put on his burgundy robe and slippers before exiting his bedroom. He was about to head downstairs when he saw the door to Joe’s bedroom ajar. He remembered closing it earlier in the night, maybe that was the sound he had heard. He went to investigate further.

Pushing the door open a little more, he noted that the bed was vacant, and the blankets had been thrown aside yet again. Joe should have been sleeping like the rest of the family at this time of the night. Leaving the room to go in search for his wayward son, Ben walked downstairs into the living room.

When he reached the bottom of the stairs and entered the cavernous room, he was greeted with an unusual and most perplexing scene. The very person he had come in search of, but not where he expected to find him. Joe was laying on his belly along the settee. Ben had forgotten about his son being only clad in his trousers when he had fallen asleep after Paul’s administration and his pain medicine.

The boy was still wearing the same pair of pants, without a night-shirt or any kind of blanket to ward off catching a chill. The white bandage around his upper right-arm stood out starkly in the low light. The was no way to know how long ago Joe had come down here and fallen asleep.

“Joseph,” Ben whispered softly, loathe to wake him, but wanting to move his son back to his room. The boy would be much more comfortable back in his own bed. He was tempted to just lift the boy’s slender frame and carry him, but knew at fifteen, that his son would not want to be treated in such a manner.

When he was much younger, Little Joe had shared many special times of being carried to bed in his father’s strong and loving arms. Nowadays the affection between them was just as strong and relished by both, but somethings had changed with the passage of time. Hoss taking on the task of carrying his brother, and Joe probably wouldn’t object as strongly. With Adam or himself attempting the same act, it would be viewed very differently, with embarrassment and humiliation.

Joe was caught between growing out of his childhood years and beginning the journey to being accepted as a young adult. And that included everybody, including family. Unless he was sick or injured, and even on those occasions in the past he had tried to argue that point and prove himself.

Ben laid a hand on the exposed skin his son’s back to try and rouse him, but frowned when he found it was much warmer beneath his touch. Very warm, and causing enough concern for him to put his hand on Little Joe’s forehead. His suspicions were soon confirmed, and there was no mistake. Fever.

“Pa?” came the response from Joe as he felt his father’s hand. He began to sit up, half-asleep and wincing in discomfort and reaching over with his with his left hand and rubbing above the bandage encircling his injured arm.

“What are you doing sleeping down here, Joe?” Ben asked calmly. “How long have you been laying on the settee?”

Joe blinked owlishly back at his father, trying to decipher the questions. The expression on his face was one of confusion, and Ben decided that any answer could wait. With his son sitting up, he put his hand on his forehead again, trying to determine how high his temperature was. Noticeably warmer than it had been when Paul was present, and probably why his son was acting more docile at the moment. Tired and feeling poorly; not an encouraging combination.

“Something woke me up……….,” Joe started to explain, pausing half way through the sentence as he gathered his thoughts. “I came down here to get a drink of water, but I don’t know how I ended up here. I didn’t have any supper and I don’t even remember going to bed in the first place.”

Joe used the palm of his right hand to rub tiredly at his eyes, and then looked about the room, trying to gain his bearings before glancing back at his father’s patient face. His father had asked him a question, and would be expecting an answer. The boy was still trying to work out when exactly he had come downstairs.

“I don’t know, Pa,” he answered truthfully, a crease appearing on his forehead as he tried to force himself to think.

Ben used his hand to smooth out that frown, noting the dampness to his curls. Ben sat down on the settee beside his son and wrapped an arm him. A shiver ran across his slim shoulders, despite the presence of the fever.

“You fell asleep after taking Doc Martin’s medicine for the pain in your arm, Joseph” Ben recounted for him. “Don’t worry about anything else for the moment. You need to go back to bed and rest. When you have had some more sleep, you can have something to eat.”

“I got some fresh water from the kitchen pump, but that isn’t sitting in there so well at the moment,” he complained, rubbing his stomach in a circular pattern gently with his hand. He yawned expansively, and then a second time in quick succession.

“Why don’t you go up to bed, son,” Ben suggested, feeling his son beginning to lean sleepily against his shoulder. Any further complex discussion could wait until Joe was feeling better. “Change into a night-shirt and I will be along in a moment.”

Joe didn’t give a verbal answer, but nodded his head, crunching his face up as such a motion caused his headache to spike. He cautiously stood up, waiting for the mild dizziness to subside and walked slowly to the stairs.

Ben watched his son ascend step by step at his own pace until he had safely reached the top landing.

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Once he was certain that Joe was in his room, he went to the kitchen, filled a bowl with cool water from the pump. After grabbing a soft cloth, he went back into his son’s room, hoping to do what he could to lower his temperature. He wasn’t alarmed enough yet enough to send for the doctor, but wanted to monitor his son until he was satisfied that the fever has passed.

Upon entering the room, he walked over to the opposite side of the bed and set the bowl of water on the bedside table. Ben moved a chair closer to the side of the bed.

Taking the cloth and saturating it the water first, and then wringing out the excess, he set about trying to bring down his son’s body temperature.

Joe had done what his father has requested about changing into a night-shirt and pyjama bottoms. The trousers he had been wearing were had been discarded haphazardly on the floor in front of his dresser. “You just lay there and go to sleep, Joe,” Ben crooned softly, taking a hold of his son’s left hand, watching his son open his eyes, following the sound of his voice.

Joe was laying on his back, the covers were still laying partially beneath his body. Caught somewhere between awake and asleep, he turned his head on the pillow as the folded damp cloth was laid on his forehead. The relief was almost instant, extracting an audible sigh in respite from the boy, but it didn’t take long before Ben could feel the heat being absorbed through the fabric. He repeated the process of wetting the cloth again.

“Sorry Pa, now I am keeping you awake…….,” Joe apologized, his voice fading away, leaving the sentence incomplete. He wanted to say something else to his father, but as he words started to form on his lips, his eyes drifted closed. Ben gave his son’s hand a gentle squeeze before laying it beside him.

As a father, he would continue this vigil for as long as he was needed. This task was one he had done many times in the past for all of his boys. Giving comfort and reassurance to any of them where he could, even at times when they openly protested about being able to manage without his fussing. Adam and Hoss had grown into confident young men, but over the past several years, like their younger brother, they had their fair share of illnesses and injuries. Each of those occasions had required him to take care of them, just like he was doing now.

Watching any of his children suffer during any kind of ill-heath was unpleasant. Even now, Joe was restless, constantly moving about, but unable to find a comfortable position. The fever had remained stubborn and it had taken another good half an hour before Ben had been able to feel a distinct change that his efforts were working and beginning to make a difference.

One hour later, Ben rose from the chair he had been sitting in, stretching his back muscles that had stiffened from being too long in the one position. He could do with some coffee and hoped that a fresh pot was brewing on the stove.

Joe’s fever, though still present, was mercifully a great deal lower, but he wanted to remain vigilant for the rest of the day. Picking up the top end of the blanket, he covered his son partially to his waist, wanting to keep his feet warm, but not wanting him to become overheated by pulling it all the way up to his shoulders.

Thankfully, Joe had rolled onto his side and had fallen into a more restful and deeper sleep, his head sinking further down into the soft downy pillow. The water in the bowl was tepid and needed to be changed. He felt it was safe enough to leave his son alone and head down to breakfast. He would ensure that Hop Sing had something nourishing ready for his son when he awoke a little later during the morning.

Half an hour ago he had heard sounds coming up from the kitchen to signify that Hop Sing was awake and preparing breakfast for the family. Not long after that, Ben was certain he had heard the heavier footsteps of Hoss on the staircase. Some of the men were due to depart on a cattle drive this morning that would take over a week, and his larger son would want to make sure they had everything before starting his own day of work.

Glancing through the window, the sun had just begun peaking above the horizon to start a new day. The clouds in the sky had been scattered by the new, fresh breeze that teased the leaves of the trees.

Walking to the door, he glanced back towards the bed, and was pleased to see Joe was still sleeping peacefully. A hot cup of coffee sounded very good right now.

__________________________________________________________________________________________________

Carrying the bowl of water, Ben made his way into the kitchen, preparing to discard the contents. Entering the doorway, he was met by Hop Sing.

“Good Mornin’, Mista Cartwright,” the small man greeted him with surprise. “Why you have bowl water,?”

“Morning, Hop Sing,” Ben answered. “Though it has not been an entirely good morning so far.”

Seeing the questioning look on the oriental face, he went onto explain further. “I have been awake since four a.m. this morning.”

“Why you wake so early?” Hop Sing queried.

“I came downstairs to find Joseph sleeping on the settee, with no shirt on. His temperature had grown much higher; from his injured arm I suspect. He was confused and complaining about an upset stomach and that he fell asleep without eating any supper,” Ben reported.

“Lil’ Joe get better?” the man asked, his concern for the youngest family member evident.

“He is sleeping a little better now then he was,” Ben conveyed. “I was using the water in the bowl to cool him down for the past hour and a half.”

“I make Lil’ Joe something to eat.” Hop Sing asserted as he took custody of the bowl. “Keep for later when he wake. Need to eat for arm to get better.”

“Thank you, Hop Sing, that would be appreciated. I am sure that Joe will be happy with whatever you decide to prepare.”

“Hot Coffee pot on table already. I bring breakfast out,” Hop Sing said as he went back to bustling about the kitchen.

Ben smiled to himself, knowing that the small man would have everything under control. Sitting down at the table, he reached for a cup and saucer in front of his usual seat and filled it from the coffee pot. The aroma was strong and very welcome, he hoped the taste would be just as good. He needed a good kick start to what was already going to be a very long day.

“Good Morning,” came the pleasant deep voice from Adam as he reached the bottom of the stairs. Most mornings, he made it to the breakfast table before anyone else.

“Morning, Adam,” Ben greeted him with a smile as he put down the cup he had been holding.

Adam sat down on the right-hand side of the table, but as he was pouring his own first cup of coffee, he couldn’t help but glance at his father and note the mild tiredness.

Although he was used to his father putting in a hard day’s work and rising early to match the demands of the ranch, today he couldn’t help but think that there was another reason for being at the table first. Adam decided to wait a little longer before broaching the subject further.

Hop Sing appeared from the kitchen with three large serving dishes, placing them in the centre of the table. “Morning, Mista Adam.”

“Good Morning, Hop Sing. You seemed to have been very busy already this morning,” Adam commented.

“Hop Sing busy, very busy,” came the response, with no further details provided. The small man was muttering in his own language as he went back into the kitchen. His statement wasn’t so out of place. Even on a quiet day, the small cook could be seen working away diligently in the kitchen at a furious pace.

Before any further conversation could be exchanged, the sound of the latch on the front door being opening drew the attention of both men seated at the dining room table. The wooden structure opened and was then closed again a few moments later. The direction of the footsteps signalled someone was entering the house.

From his position at the table, Adam saw his larger, younger brother, enter the house, remove his hat and place it on the credenza. Adam raised an eyebrow that another family member was up early today.

“Morning, Pa, Adam,” Hoss said as he approached the table and took up his seat, ready for breakfast.

“Good morning, Hoss, what has you up and so active this early in the morning? Adam queried. “Hard at chores before you have eaten any breakfast doesn’t sound like your normal routine at all.”

“I had some things to sort out before I got started today that’s all,” Hoss replied. “Those fellas outside are getting ready to leave on that drive this morning, and I wanted to talk to Dan Toliver before they headed out.”

“That yard out there is so muddy out there this morning after all that rain we had last night. The mules were having a hard time getting loaded up ready to leave. Their hooves are caked in the stuff not to mention everything else that touches the ground. Charlie was hollering at the men to make sure they were cleaning out the mud from each animal. Dan had the other men packing down the yard as best they could to smooth out the worst of the ruts. It is probably going to be slow going on the trail for the first few hours until that black soil dries out some,” the large man reported.

“I will try and give you a hand when I get back from Virginia City, but that won’t be until after lunch at the earliest,” Adam offered.

“Morning son,” Ben said as he started to put some of the hot food onto his plate. He held the platter out to Hoss who accepted it.

The comments Hoss made about the condition of the yard were no surprise to him. The problem arose from time to time with heavy downpours, and it made an awful mess. He may have to take some of the men off other less important work this morning to help.

“Thanks Pa, I am so hungry, I might have to eat the dish too,” Hoss said, as he used his fork to serve himself a large portion. He was mindful to leave enough for Adam and his younger brother who was yet to make an appearance.

“You spoke to Dan Toliver, son?” Ben asked with a curious expression on his face, knowing that the head wrangler’s name had been brought up only last night when the three of them were talking in the living room.

“Yeah, what Joe shared with me when we was camping, kept bugging me so much that I didn’t want to wait until they got back to talk to Dan,” Hoss answered, pouring his first cup of coffee for the day. “They will be gone for the best part of week taking those cattle up to that pasture before the weather starts turning colder.”

“What did you say to him?” Adam asked just as curious as his father as to what was exchanged.

Dan Toliver had worked for the Ponderosa for a long time now, and was respected by the men. To those who were unfamiliar with him, he could come off as too surly or hard-nosed. He wasn’t normally one to be swapping small talk with. You told him what needed to be done, and it was carried out. For the men who worked with the cattle, he was the one giving the orders and he didn’t take kindly to anybody who wasn’t about keeping their mind on the job at hand.

“I told him that someone, or maybe more than that, was harassing and causing trouble for Joe,” Hoss stated. “I made sure to tell him that we wanted to find out who it was, and put a stop to it. I also mentioned to him that Joe didn’t know anything me talking to him.”

“That is probably a fairly good idea too, Hoss, about keeping everything low key until we identify the culprits involved,” Ben said after listening to his son speak. “Joseph can be way too secretive when he wants to be, and if he thinks anybody is watching out for him, then we won’t find out what has been happening at all.”

“I sort of thought that too, Pa,” Hoss agreed. “Even with only us knowing. Joe don’t even know I have told you and Adam yet, and I ain’t aiming to do that neither. I let Charlie know too of course, because he will be around the most during the next week outside and around the barn. He will keep a good look out against any of the men left behind from the drive who might be causing trouble.”

“Dan said that most of the men he has now have been working here for a while, so he couldn’t pick out who might be doing it yet. They will have a couple of campfires over the next few nights, and he was going observe their chatter from a distance. He wasn’t very happy to hear that someone was doing it in the first place. He has a soft spot for Joe, always has done, since he was a little tyke,” Hoss commented.

“Yes, Dan has looked out for Joe as long as the rest of us have done, and Charlie the head foreman too,” Ben remarked, a small smile coming to his face as a memory or two came to him of a much smaller Joseph causing problems for both men. Charlie and Dan were two of their longest serving employees apart from Hop Sing, whom he had come to rely heavily on to keep the operation of the ranch as smooth as possible.

“Something tells me that your plan is going to backfire on you,” Adam predicted with a wry grin after lowering his coffee cup. “If there is one certainty around this place, it is that secrets don’t remain that for very long. I plan to do a little observing of my own with some of the men from today as well, and have a talk with Miss Jones. I want to impress on her, that although her intentions may have been for the greater good, they were only in her own mind, and have done some real harm.”

“Whether she admits to it or not, she has played a pivotal role in eroding away our younger brother’s self confidence involving his attendance at school. And none of us want that for what remains of his education. Joe should be able to make his own decision on going to college when he is ready to do so, and not because someone’s perceived notion of that being the route that every student should take,” the dark-haired man continued.

Adam glanced over at his father at his last statement, waiting to see what the reaction would be. He knew his father had been stubborn lately whenever the subject of Joe’s schooling had been brought up, and it had only caused hurt feelings between father and son. Being Joe’s father, it was expected that Ben would make the choice and determine when his youngest son’s schooling years were completed. The decision about college was another matter entirely and should be a discussion that the two of them had together. Joe should have a large stake and the majority say in any final agreement that was reached.

Ben was pleased that Adam intended to address the situation with the teacher who was causing Joe’s doubt in himself, and had been fuelling the disagreements that he had been part of. He sighed inwardly to himself that he had better give the matter a great deal of consideration in the very near future. He didn’t want to argue or fight with his son over what he wanted to do with his life.

Hoss could see that the conversation had changed from finding out which ranch hands had been giving Joe a hard time. At the moment, that was the priority that he wanted to focus on.

“Dan did tell me about one other fella who might have been someone to watch out for,” Hoss began. He was pleased to see that his words at the desired affect, and that both family members at the table now had his full attention.

“According to him, there was someone by the name of Frank Richards, don’t know enough about him, and I can’t recollect him all that much,” Hoss explained. “Last night, Dan Toliver fired him, told him to pack his gear and get before sunrise. I guess that is the reason he hasn’t had a chance to report what he done to you yet, Pa.”

“Did he say why he fired this man? Ben asked, sitting against the back of the chair. He and Adam both had a large hand in employing the ranch hands that were employed on the Ponderosa, and scrutinizing their backgrounds and previous work experience. Loyal and long time people like Dan Toliver and the head foreman Charlie, had the full authority from Ben himself to dismiss any worker when there was a good enough reason.

“It wasn’t because Dan suspected him of taunting Little Joe, just that he didn’t work out,” Hoss stated. “Been living in the bunk house for less than two months and one of the new starters. He was starting fights with some of the other hands at night over card games and didn’t pick up working with the cattle very much during that time. Dan paid out his wages for his short time here, and he is probably going to be in town today at the local saloon, drinking it away,”

“Well then, based on what you said, I respect Dan’s decision. We have enough work to do around here, without having men on the payroll who are not pulling their weight,” Ben said firmly. “Dan didn’t come to me to get any money, so he probably did it out of his own pocket. I will check next week when he returns and reimburse him if he did.”

“Perhaps it might be time to give an overdue talk to all of the men, about the standard of conduct we expect when working around here and living in the accommodation that is generously provided,” Adam suggested. “They have all been told before about conducting card games and causing trouble.”

“You may be right about that Adam, it wouldn’t hurt to remind them all of their responsibilities around here,” Ben remarked with complete agreement.

“I will take care of it for those men left behind when I return later this afternoon,” Adam offered. “The men that are leaving on the cattle drive this morning can have the rules reinforced for them later.”

_________________________________________________________________________

The grandfather clock behind them in the living room, chimed the new time of seven o’clock in the morning.

“Time to head up there I guess………,” he said without finishing the sentence.

At this time every day, he took on the unenviable job of waking Joe to come down to breakfast and then proceed to get ready for school. Hoss started to rise from the table, but Ben stopped him from taking a step towards the stair case, already aware of the task his middle son has assigned for himself.

“Finish your breakfast, Hoss, you won’t need to go up there this morning and wake Joseph for school,” Ben informed him, placing a hand on his son’s lower forearm to stop him from leaving the table.

“I won’t, Pa?” Hoss asked with confusion written across his face, sitting back down.

“Your brother is the reason I was awake at four o’clock this morning,” Ben told the two of them. Adam looked over at his father, and saw the signs of concern that were still visible and now had further details on why his father was looking a little tired.

“Nightmares from the storm last night?” Adam surmised. He had heard the sky rattle for a number of hours himself, and the rain had continued with abatement until well after he retired for the evening. He should have gotten up at least once to check on Joe himself.

“Not that I am aware of,” Ben answered, “Though Joseph couldn’t tell me what had woken him up at that hour, when I asked him. I was disturbed by a noise myself, and went to investigate, only to find his room empty, and the covers in their usual disarray. Then went I came down here to the living room, he had fallen asleep along the settee. He was still wearing the trousers we had left on him and no shirt.”

“Getting a little cooler during the early morning hours to be down here dressed like that, Pa,” Hoss pointed out. His own guilt about the injury to Joe’s arm began to resurface.

“Yes, I know, but when I found him down here, his temperature was much higher,” Ben said. “I spent the last couple of hours before coming down here, sitting beside his bed and bathing his forehead with a cloth and some cool water. When I tried to gauge what he was doing down here, the fever was only making his headache worse. Joe told me he gone into the kitchen for a drink of water, but didn’t remember falling asleep. The water upset his stomach, and he went to bed without supper.”

“I sent him back up to his room and then followed up after him to see if I could start bringing his fever down,” Ben concluded. “At least now he is dressed better now for going to bed.”

“Why didn’t you wake one of us up?” Adam asked. “We could have given you a helping hand if you needed it and Joe was unsettled.”

“I didn’t want to disturb you two unnecessarily,” Ben answered truthfully. “There was no point in all of us losing sleep. You both have important work to carry out today. I was prepared to send one of you into town this morning for the doctor at dawn if his fever rose too high or hadn’t started to come down.”

Adam was satisfied with the explanation given, and was aware that his father would have roused one of them if his concern over his brother’s temperature had continued to grow.

“Joe feeling any better now, Pa?” Hoss questioned, but knowing that his father would still be seated upstairs if Joe was still suffering. Paul would have already been summoned if his brother’s health had deteriorated further.

“Before I left his room, he fever was thankfully much lower and Joe had fallen into a much deeper sleep,” Ben said with a small smile. “Hop Sing has been preparing some breakfast for your brother. Something that will be gentle on his stomach if it is still bothering him when he wakes up.”

“Because of the time lost this morning before he was finally getting some decent rest, I thought I would let him stay home today from school,” Ben said, as he lifted and drained the last of the coffee from his cup. He could see the amused glances from both sons over the rim.

Hoss and Adam both exchanged knowing looks with each other that said everything.

Laughing quietly to himself, Hoss remembered the conversation that Joe and he had shared around the campfire about him wanting to finish his schooling early and start working around the ranch. Little Joe had it all wrong about how hard he was finding it to get his father to listen to his side of the argument. All his brother needed to do was use his injured arm from yesterday, and add in a whole heaping of concern.

Their father could try and explain his actions as much as he liked, and they were definitely pleased to hear that Joe’s fever had begun to turn around after a couple of hours. Both older boys knew that there was one other determining factor for keeping Little Joe home from school today. In addition to showing genuine concern for the boy; fussing like an old mother hen was the other reason was the man acting in this manner.

“You said yourself, Hoss, that the ground outside is completely saturated, slippery and muddy from the rain last night. The roads leading into Virginia City are going to be just as boggy in that direction. I would prefer it if Joe wasn’t riding to school on his own in such treacherous conditions as that. His arm is going to be sore for the next few days, and he might come off Cochise on the way there and cause himself a more serious injury.”

After such a long tip back yesterday, and feeling poorly early this morning, I made the decision that your younger brother could use the extra sleep,” Ben said. “You both heard Paul last night, he doesn’t want Joseph lifting anything heavy today with his arm, and that would include his saddle.”

“Right, Pa,” Hoss said, his eyes crinkled around the edges with silent laughter, and he was unable to hide his wide grin on his face at the explanation given.

Hoss was fairly certain that Joe only needed to act the same part well enough, and his brother would be able to have his own way at almost any time and as often as he liked. There was a knack that Little Joe possessed, that enabled him to wrap his father around his little finger if he chose to. Unfortunately, he could also be counted amongst the growing list of people who often found themselves being persuaded or coerced by those same expressive green eyes.

“I am finished breakfast now, Pa,” Hoss declared as he excused himself from the table. “I am going upstairs for a minute and take a peek in at Joe before I head back out to the barn to start my chores.”

“Thank you son, that isn’t really necessary, but thank you,” Ben said, sharing a smirk of his own with Adam. They both knew that Hoss wouldn’t be able to leave the house to start work until he was satisfied that Joe had been taken care of and sleeping peacefully.

“Adam, good luck today at submitting your contract. I know you have put a lot of effort into it. I will see you later on today. The mud will probably be caked onto my boots a foot thick by that time.”

Hop Sing had appeared from the kitchen to begin clearing away the breakfast dishes just as Hoss made his comment about the mud being on his boots.

“Mud don’t belong in house!” Hop Sing scolded him. “You bring mud home and put on floor and Mister Hoss not eat supper tonight.”

“Now that ain’t fair, Hop Sing,” Hoss said in his own defence. “I ain’t even done nothin’ yet, but that ground out there is awfully muddy.”

Hoss stopped talking, watching the cook scurry back to his own domain. He glanced back over at his father and brother who were quietly chuckling at the exchange they had just witnessed. Without further ado, he started up the stairs, with Hop Sing’s words of warning following behind.

“Muddy ground where Mister Hoss sleep tonight if Hop Sing find mud in house,” the little oriental man said, returning to pick up the remaining dishes before anything more further could be said on the matter.

Ten minutes later, Hoss descended the stairs, buckled his gun-belt around his waist and placed his hat on his head and walked out the front door of the homestead.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

With Hoss attending to chores outside, and Joe still sleeping quietly in his room, this was the perfect opportunity for Ben to spend talking to Adam about the lumber contract that was being submitted later this morning. The two of them didn’t get to talk together as much as they would like except for when it was quiet, and both were appreciative of the chance.

“That contract took a lot longer to finish last night than I originally anticipated, but I think collectively, we should be pleased as a family with the outcome should it end up being accepted,” Adam told his father as they shared a second cup of coffee. “By the time I was finished pouring over those figures, adjusting and recalculating them, I was utterly sick of looking at numbers.”

“From what you showed me last night, and over the past few weeks as you have been working on it, we are going to have to employ a lot more men to work for the timber operation,” Ben stated. His predictions came about from a practical point of view and going over the demands that were going to be required of them in needing more man power.

“Yes, and the problem that we are going to face with that conundrum, is that some of the new start up mines around here are offering better money to compete with each other. From the couple of operations that I was able to view for myself first-hand, they are very unstable. And that is going to remain the case until they get timber from somewhere to strengthen the walls of those diggings that they are being excavated,” Adam explained.

One of the new mines opening up that Adam was talking about on the Comstock, had been surveyed and registered within the last three months. The size of the land and scale of the operation proposed could see it deemed as one of the larger mineral claims being marked out in the district. The owner was a very wealthy man by the name of Rowland Collins.

At the discussion meetings that Adam had attended earlier the previous week, Collins made it abundantly cleared to all interested parties that the acquisition of timber that he required was much larger in volume than any of his previous ventures. Whichever company was successful in winning his lumber contract, could expect a lot of work to deliver the large amounts needed for the mine. The right bidder could also expect to make a handsome profit at the end of the day.

This was the sort of opportunity Adam saw as a great investment not only for the Ponderosa, but it would also allow the Cartwright family to extend the lumber mill they had up and running. Adam was astute enough to know that the Cartwright’s would not be the only interested party submitting a bid this morning. He suspected there would be a great deal of interest in such a promising venture.

“Costs at the beginning may be higher, but if I have done the calculations correctly, the profits that come once the logging commences will outweigh those,” Adam predicted. “My aim is to hire some more of the local men, but that may not be possible for the entire work force and numbers that I can estimate.”

Adam glanced up at the clock and noticed the time, “I had better make a start,” he stated, finishing his coffee and getting up from the table. “I suspect those roads into Virginia City are going to be boggy like you said. The deadline for tenders to be submitted is noon, and I still have to ride into town first. I want to leave from here by nine o’clock at the latest and still need to change clothes and double check one final time that I have everything in order.”

“After you have finished doing everything you need to do in town, would you please stop by Paul’s office and ask him to come out here when he has a spare moment,” Ben requested. “I want him to take another look at your brother and those stitches, just to be on the safe side and give me peace of mind. I cannot pinpoint the cause of why his temperature would suddenly spike the way it did.”

“That won’t be a problem,” Adam confirmed. “I was planning on checking up on Joe after I go upstairs to change and before I leave.”

“Once you have seen Paul, you might want to drop by and give Joe’s apologies to Miss Jones and Miss Summers at the school. Both of them will have noticed his absence by that time. Miss Summers can send any extra work home that he misses today. I will make a decision on him attending school tomorrow once the doctor has seen Joe and given his opinion.”

“I will be sure to see both teachers,” Adam promised. “And I won’t leave Virginia City without alerting the doctor.”

Ben smiled to himself as he watched Adam head upstairs. They were both laughing at Hoss when he mentioned about wanting to check on Joe before he left to start work. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, and Adam had admitted to wanting to do exactly the same thing. Having three boys who cared and looked out for each other like his sons did, was something to be very grateful for as a family.

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Adam completed his morning ritual of shaving and getting dressed. This morning he was wearing a red long sleeved shirt, black trousers and a black vest to complete the ensemble. All of the paperwork that he needed was together in a leather pouch downstairs sitting on his father’s large desk. It would be the last thing that he would collect as he left the house.

Before leaving his bedroom, he thought for a moment about the last thing he needed to do upstairs; checking on Joe. Going to a row of books that stood neatly on a shelf, he pondered which title and subject would suit his sibling. Something adventurous and stimulating to his senses and keep his mind occupied, and perhaps teach him something without Joe feeling it was like being forced upon him.

Approaching Joe’s bedroom door, he softened his footsteps as much as he could and opened the door and walked through. With his keen observation, it didn’t appear as though the boy had moved too much at all after his father had gone downstairs to breakfast. The blankets covered him to his waist, and he was laying on his left side, facing the window.

Placing the book on the bedside table, Adam was now able to see his brother’s face, and was pleased that it was peaceful. Using a gentle hand, he laid it on Joe’s forehead, checking if his fever was still present. Mild heat was still present.

Joe turned his head slightly on the pillow as he felt someone’s touch and his brow creased with slight confusion as he tried to wake himself up. “Adam?” he called out, but his voice was barely above a whisper, and he was falling back asleep. For a moment, a thought started to form in his mind, but it quickly faded away and was lost.

A wry smile crossed Adam’s handsome features, somehow Joe was able to distinguish the subtle differences between his hand on his forehead, checking for fever instead of his father’s. Hoss’ hand was much larger of course and would be even easier to identify. How Joe was able to do it when he wasn’t fully awake would probably remain an unsolved mystery.

“Get some more rest, Joe,” Adam urged quietly, but doubted that his brother had heard his reply. He made a mental note to himself to spend some quality time with his sibling later this afternoon. That would depend on how Joe was feeling when he returned from Virginia City.

Adam closed the door quietly behind him, and headed downstairs.

_______________________________________________________________________________________

“Joe was sleeping just now when I looked in on him,” he said as he buckled his own gun-belt around his waist and collected his hat. “I left a book on the bedside table in case he gets bored after he wakes. He still has a very low temperature.”

“That was very nice of you, thank you for the thought, Adam,” Ben said as he rose from the dining room table, and prepared to start his own day.

“Please ride safely this morning,” Ben said to his eldest son as he collected the leather pouch from his desk. He couldn’t keep Adam home because the roads might be bad, but that didn’t stop him worrying any less.

“I will be back when I can,” Adam promised and opened the front door before heading out to the barn to saddle his horse, Sport.

Adam noted that his larger brother had not been wrong about the amount of mud in the yard. The thick, cake-batter-consistent soil was clinging to his boots as he made his way across the ground. ‘What a way to start the day’ he thought to himself.

“Morning Adam,” Charlie the head foreman called out as he entered the barn.

“Morning Charlie,” Adam returned, gesturing a wave with his hand and approaching the man, intending to conduct a casual conversation between the two of them.

Charlie changed the topic to something more specific and troublesome. “I was sorry to be hearing about that nasty business going on again for Joe.” Bad business all round. Hoss was telling me earlier this morning before the men set off on the cattle drive. I thought we had stopped that a while back and it was in the past now? ”

“Yes, we did too,” Adam said, his voice showing his displeasure that history was repeating itself, “We will all have to be vigilant around here again, because from what Hoss reported to us, there has not been just one isolated incident happening. From what Joe confided about to Hoss, it is safe to assume that it could have been occurring over some time.”

Charlie lifted the hat off his head, scratching at his thinning scalp and greying hair, trying to figure out who might be responsible amongst the ranch hands.

“Did you work with this Frank Richards person that was fired last night?” Adam questioned.

“Naw, Dan had him working with the cattle as Hoss probably already told you. Apart from coming into the barn and retrieving the odd item of tack, and lead one of the horses out from the barn, I never spoke to him. Richards never did any work with the men that I am in charge of each day. Sorry I can’t help you more about him,” Charlie apologized, wishing he had information to tell Adam.

“I was hoping to talk to you a little longer this morning, but I got caught up inside and need to make up some time. I will come and find you when I come back. I estimate a little after lunch time,” Adam said as he focused on getting ready to leave.

“I am sure I will be around here somewhere, probably up to my neck in mud by then,” Charlie remarked as he headed off to continue his own work. He hadn’t even put a dent in the list of chores and jobs that needed to be done after the rainy night.

Hoss was also inside the barn, set further back towards the stalls and using a pronged fork on a large mound of hay. He looked up as he saw his brother coming closer.

“I was going to saddle your horse for you older brother, but seeing how particular you normally are, I changed my mind,” he poked in fun.

Joe wasn’t the only family member who was very particular about their horse and how they were handled. Adam was the same when it came to his large chestnut stallion, especially when it came to saddling the animal. Everything had to be just right and the tack was checked twice and sometimes more before he was satisfied.

“So kind of you, Hoss,” Adam quickly returned in jest. “Though he probably wouldn’t have taken to kindly to you trying to handle him this morning anyway.”

“Let me handle him!” Hoss declared with a laugh of mockery, leaning on the handle of the pitch fork. “All someone needs to do for the dang greedy, cantankerous mule of yours, is to put food in front of him. Maybe that way, he will start co-operating or doing what he is told.”

“Unlike your valiant steed, who eats more of the grain bill every month than all the horses in this barn combined,” Adam openly taunted. A slight exaggeration perhaps, but that huge horse didn’t slow down when he was being fed.

“Chubb is a big animal, like me. Needs to eat a lot of good food,” Hoss declared in his horse’s defence, pulling his hat down for emphasis and not about to accept an argument to the contrary.

“Yes, and like his owner can be ornery and complain endlessly when he doesn’t get enough, and then you cannot get a lick of work out of them for the rest of the day,” Adam teased with a friendly grin.

“I had better make a start for Virginia City, or we will be here all day talking about the quirks each of our mounts,” Adam commented. “I will see you later, Hoss.”

“Yeah, be seeing you,” Hoss said, turning his attention back to the mound of straw nearby that wasn’t going to get any smaller just by talking about it.

Once Sport was saddled correctly, he carefully tucked the leather pouch into one of his saddle bags. Adam didn’t want to waste any more time, and mounted his horse after bidding his brother goodbye with a wave. Holding the reins loosely, the animal’s movements were instinctual, and very little guidance was required for him to respond.

They could continue their discussions about whose horse ate the most another time, but he had enjoyed the moment of playful banter. His horse did like his food too, and their father’s horse Buck could be temperamental without even needing a reason. The proud animal beneath him, tossed his head upwards in objection and put on a burst of speed, as though being able to pick up on his rider’s thoughts.

Adam knew he was cutting it a little fine by leaving the submission of their bid until the last minute. He was confident enough that the Cartwright tender would win the valuable contract when all the offers were compared with each other. The profit they could stand to make would set the Ponderosa up nicely for the next several months and hopefully see them successfully through a potentially difficult winter ahead.

___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

With breakfast out of the way, Ben headed upstairs, intent on changing clothes and completing his normal morning routine. Once that was done, he would check in on his youngest son before making a start on some of the endless paperwork that was sprawling across his desk. The end of the month was fast approaching, and the men on the payroll would be expecting to be paid on time.

Thirty minutes later, Ben emerged from his own bedroom, dressed in his usual work clothes, including his distinctive tan leather vest. He went towards Joe’s bedroom, only to see the door ajar and open like it had been several hours ago. With his own door closed, he hadn’t heard Joe stir or his footsteps on the staircase.

Heading downstairs, he was confronted with his youngest son, sitting at the dining room table. He was still wearing a night-shirt, his hair was tussled and uncombed. The boy had his elbow planted on top of the table, and his head tilted to the side and heavily supported by the palm of his hand.

Joe opened his eyes, startled by a noise, and looked back at his father with bleary green eyes, and a slightly confused expression. Tiredness was clearly visible in his posture, body language and every other mannerism.

“Good morning, how are you feeling, son?” Ben asked, noting that he must have only been awake for a few minutes, given his disheveled and lack-luster appearance.

“I am fine, Pa,” Joe answered as he lifted his head and lowered his arm, but immediately gritted his teeth at the discomfort from his stitches. “I must have been laying wrong on my arm in my bed,” he offered in explanation, as fresh concern grew in his father’s brown eyes that he was still experiencing pain.

“Why didn’t someone come and wake me up in time to get ready for school this morning, Pa? Now I am going to be late and have to listen to one of Miss Jones’ lectures about the need for being punctual.”

Ben sat down on the chair beside his son, placing a hand over the boy’s forehead as he answered, “Hoss wanted to come upstairs as usual and wake you, but I told him not to, Joseph.”

Joe attempted to pull his head away from the offending hand, giving a momentary look of annoyance and was about to object, but his arm was hurting enough for him to change his mind. On second thought this morning he was willing to surrender to his father’s caring and fussing, closing his eyes and leaning into his father’s soft, soothing strokes of his hair.

Joe opened his eyes again, and looked back at this father, “Why did you tell him not to?”

Ben smiled inwardly at his son’s brief moment of petulance, but paid no heed to it, “The fever you had early this morning worried me, Joe. Thankfully your temperature is much lower than it was earlier. Hopefully by this evening it will be almost back to normal, or gone completely by tomorrow with any luck.”

“I didn’t mean to keep you awake, Pa,” Joe said, with guilt creeping into his voice. “I don’t remember much after going back upstairs like you asked me to.”

“You only had a few hours of sleep over all, and it looks to me like you could do with more,” Ben said, taking his hand away, but relieved that his son was looking much better and talking to him. “I made the decision that you could stay home another day from school today and let your arm heal a little more.”

Joe was about to open his mouth, but Ben spoke first.

“Don’t tell me that you are fine, Joseph,” Ben challenged with mock sternness. His son used that word far too much for his liking when giving any answer about his health or well-being. “I saw you in pain not a moment ago,” he lightly scolded.

Joe gave his father a small but bright smile, knowing he had been caught out, “Well maybe just a little,” he finally admitted, using his left hand to rub at the bandage. “It still smarts quite a bit this morning,” he added ruefully.

“Doc Martin reported that your arm will be sore for a few more days, Joe. The stitches were only put in last night,” Ben reminded him. “He left another satchel of medicine if the pain keeps on persisting?”

“No, that powder he prescribes tastes horrible, Pa,” Joe replied categorically, scrunching up his face as he recalled the bitterness. “I don’t need anything for the pain yet, honest.”

Before there was any further discussion between father and son, Hop Sing emerged from the kitchen with a bowl of food, and placed it on the table in front of Joe.

“Hop Sing make with little extra salt, but good hot, and will warm number three son from inside out,” the small man announced with eagerness.

Joe knew from previous experience that he would stand beside him until he tried the food and gave his opinion. His stomach wasn’t feeling quite so uneasy at the moment, and growled at the enticing aroma that was wafting up from the table. He was feeling hungry.

The scrambled eggs were hot and soft, he put two forkfuls into his mouth and swallowed before giving a verbal critique. “Tastes great, Hop Sing,” he asserted, taking another mouthful to prove that he was happy enough to eat more.

“Bring Lil Joe juice to drink,” Hop Sing said as he returned to the kitchen.

“Mista Cartwright want more coffee?” he asked Ben.

“No thank you, Hop Sing, I need to make a start this morning or nothing will get done,” Ben answered. “Good to see this young fellow is eating this morning.”

“What am I supposed to do all day cooped up in the house?” Joe asked as he put down the fork. The bowl was not quite empty, but he had eaten all he wanted for now.

“Adam already thought ahead on your behalf in that area, and selected a book from his own collection,” Ben replied. “He told me he set it aside on your bedside table, so you can do a little reading if you want to.”

Joe didn’t want to sound like he didn’t appreciate his brother’s forethought, but was playing with the end of the fork, showing total disinterest in that suggestion.

Ben decided to move onto the next idea, “Why don’t you go upstairs, wash your face and change your clothes. I want to talk to Charlie out in the barn, you can come out there with me if you want to?”

Joe made a face at his father’s offer. Going to the barn wasn’t the problem, he had thought about heading out there himself for some fresh air. At fifteen he was plenty old enough to do just that, without anybody needing to accompany him. Stitches or not.

“Are those the only choices I have?” he asked glumly, looking down at the bowl on the table. Any sign of a smile had vanished and been replaced with a sullen look at the prospect of the rest of his day being filled with monotony.

Ben stood up from his chair. He wasn’t about to put up with any measure of the boy walking around inside with his bottom lip touching the floor all day from boredom.

“Yes, unless you can think of something else?” he said firmly. “The doctor doesn’t want you lifting anything heavy with your new stitches for a few days, so that would include your saddle. Joseph, you can choose between reading the book that Adam left for you, or find another one on the bookshelf. Doing something else quietly for a few hours, or going back to bed for some more sleep. Whichever of those selections you prefer.”

“No, I don’t prefer, Pa,” Joe said, looking up at his father as he spoke. “I will go upstairs and get changed like you asked me. At least going with you out to the barn I can see Cochise. That has to be better company than any book from Adam.”

Ben watch his son for a few moments before speaking briefly about a subject that until this morning, had been setting both of them against each other.

“Son, you have been asking me for months to stop going to school, so that you can work full-time on the ranch with the other men and your brothers,” Ben pointed out.

“Yes, but at least when I do that, I won’t be stuck inside like today with nothing to do. There will be plenty more to do outside and I won’t get bored. I can spend the whole day with Cochise,” he replied, flashing a brief grin at the mention of riding.

Ben was pleased to see the mention of his son’s favourite pass-time going some way towards brightening and improving his overall mood.

“I know that would make you very happy, Joe, but you should already know there is much work that needs to be done around here? You won’t be able to just ride your horse around for fun when you are given the opportunity to work full-time, young man. Hard work!” he teased, giving his shoulder a light squeeze of affection.

“I will come back down in a few minutes,” Joe said, getting up from the table, accepting the offer of going out to the barn.

_________________________________________________________________________________________

A short time after going upstairs to his bedroom, Joe met his father near the front door, dressed and wearing his boots. He had run a comb through his tangled locks enough to look presentable.

Walking away from the house and towards the barn, Ben and Joe both got their first view at the poor condition of the yard.

“Hoss was certainly right about the state of all this mud,” Ben commented. The way it was now, working with cattle or horses would become more laborious and cumbersome. The animals themselves wouldn’t like it much either.

The two of them avoided the worst areas in the center of the yard, skirting around the outer edges where it wasn’t quite so thick or sloppy. Joe took a slightly larger stride over one patch of mud, but had to sidestep a bit shorter around the next one.

“How am I going to complete my chores today, Pa, if I am not allowed to lift anything?” Joe asked, being a little more careful on where he was placing his feet. “Collecting the eggs for Hop Sing shouldn’t involve anything heavy, except a chicken or two when they don’t want to leave the hen-house. Inside the barn, my other chores usually include mucking out the stalls and filling the grain bins.”

“Hop Sing already collected the eggs a little earlier this morning, Joe,” Ben answered, frowning with annoyance when he mistimed a step and his right boot was now a different colour to the other, and caked in a thick layer of mud. “He was talking about doing some baking this morning. The bread bin was getting a little low yesterday and he wanted to make a pie for supper tonight.

“As for your other chores, your brothers are more than capable of taking care of them this morning,” Ben added, as he scrapped as much of the excess mud off as he could.

The two of them had reached the barn, and finished the conversation they were having before entering the large cavernous barn.

“I don’t like having to do my chores, Pa. You know that and I am sure that my brothers would be quick enough to attest to that too,” Joe remarked. “They have to be done though, and I like it even less when someone else has to do my share unfairly. Adam and Hoss have their own chores to take care of, and the work that they need to do after that. It makes me feel guilty when they have to do mine too.”

“You have pitched in and done their chores when they have been recovering in bed from an injury or an illness before,” Ben insisted. “They won’t mind today. As for tomorrow, let’s leave it until then to decide.”

“Good morning, half of the Cartwright family,” Charlie greeted them with a grin and a hearty handshake for his boss.

“Hope you are feeling a lot better this morning, young fella?” Charlie directed at Joe. “You certainly look a might better than you did when you came home with Hoss yesterday.”

“Where is Hoss?” Joe asked, looking about the barn, expecting to see his larger brother. He had expected to hear him talking when he walked in with his father.

“Fraid’ you just missed him Joe and Mister Cartwright. He was here afore you came in here, but he loaded up a wagon with tools and timbers and was headed down to a section of fence that needed attending to,” Charlie told them. “He didn’t right say what time he would be back.”

The expression on Joe’s face changed and it fell a little with disappointment that he had only just missed his brother. If he had come out to the barn sooner, he might have been able to persuade Hoss to take him in the wagon. He had been hoping to waste some of the excess time he had this morning with Hoss and watch him take care of the animals.

“Thanks for putting Cochise away for me, Charlie,” Joe said in appreciation. “I hope she didn’t give you any trouble?”

“No more than her owner on a regular day, Joe,” Charlie said, giving Ben a cheeky wink.

Joe coped the jibe about himself well enough, and smiled in return, knowing that the man usually looked out for him and took extra great care of Cochise when he wasn’t there to do it himself. “Did you change her water bucket this morning like I always do?”

“Yes, Sir, Master Cartwright,” Charlie answered, holding onto the suspenders he was wearing with his hands. “Twice, just like you do….,” he started to add, but Joe had already wandered away from both men towards his four-legged friend. “But I guess you will be checking up on me just the same.”

Ben and Charlie watched Joe go over to the stall of his horse. It wasn’t only the boy who was looking forward to seeing a friend today. They both laughed with each other as they witnessed the unique bond that the boy and horse shared. The horse had already begun making noise as soon as Joe had entered the barn, trying to gain his attention.

After entering the stall, Joe peered into the water bucket, and then back at Charlie and grinned with thanks, knowing that the man had carried out his normal routine. There was nothing but absolute trust as he looped his arms around Cochise’s neck. He grimaced for a moment, as the stitches in his arm pulled and made themselves known.

“Doc Martin had to put a number of stitches into his arm,” Ben spoke quietly to Charlie. He had seen his son’s brow crease with the sudden flash of pain, and watched as he altered the angle of his arm that encircled the animal. His son didn’t want to lose the connection and was willing to suffer a little discomfort, in order to spend time with his best friend.

Joe turned his head into the horses shoulder and spoke softly to her, sharing a conversation that nobody else was meant to hear. The horse responded in kind, lapping up the affection she was receiving, lowering her head over his shoulder. The boy had a contented smile his face, feeling her warm breath on the back of his shirt.

“Excuse me if I am speaking out of line, Mister Cartwright, Sir, but there isn’t any better medicine for a boy Joe’s age, for what ails him, then what he is doing right now,” Charlie casually remarked. The love between this particular horse and rider ran deeper than any river, and spoke volumes to anybody who took the time to notice how much they meant to each other.

“No, you are not speaking out of turn, Charlie,” Ben said with agreement, “I think you are right about her company being exactly what Joe needs.”

Putting a hand on the back of his neck and pulling at the bandana that was tied around it, he wanted to talk about another subject. “ I know Hoss already talked to you about someone causing fresh trouble for Joe that we don’t know about yet. I trust that you will come to me if you see or hear of anything?”

“Hoss and Adam both, Mister Cartwright, and they were mad, just like one could expect for being kin. Adam said that he wanted to talk to me more about it when he returned from town,” Charlie answered. He could see the concerned look on his boss’ face and knew what was bothering him. There were those like himself and others close to the family, unhappy that they were having to deal with issues from the past.

“Good, good. Well thank you Charlie, I know the yard is a mess after the rain. I had better take this young scamp of mine back inside for a few hours and get on with some paperwork myself.”

“I will check in with you later, Mister Cartwright,” Charlie promised. “Hoss is already making enough noise about the mud for all of the men, but I suspect we will get everything done today that needs doing. Might take a whole lot longer, and need a bath at the end of it though,” he added with a hearty belly laugh.

“Joseph, you had better come back inside with me now please,” Ben requested.

Joe looked up at his father and was about to argue that very point, but then looked back at his horse, giving her another pat of affection, “Don’t worry Cooch, I will find a way to come and spend some more time with you later.” The volume of his voice was raised just enough for Ben to hear his comment to the horse.

“Oh really now, young man?” Ben challenged, folding his arms across his chest and confronting his son over that notion. “And what exactly do you mean by ‘find a way’?”

“Come on, Pa, you have work to do at your desk,” Joe teased, dodging the question aimed at him. He didn’t know when he would make it back out to Cochise today, but he was confident it would happen.

_________________________________________________________________________________________

Upon entering the house, Ben made his suggestion to Joe about how to fill in the next few hours, “Why don’t you go and get that book from your room that Adam left you and bring it down here to read?”

“Fine,” Joe said too quickly, his shoulders slumping at the thought of doing something so boring during daylight hours.

The boy went upstairs and retrieved the book, glancing down at the title. It didn’t sound too bad, maybe Adam had actually chosen something worthwhile for a change. Too many of the books in his collection were filled with the words of William Shakespeare, and flowery pieces of poetry for his liking. His brother was often quoting from them to the ladies he was courting.

Ben sat down at his desk and started looking through the invoices that he needed to sort through. There was a large ledger on the desk underneath his right arm. Recording the figures in there legibly would take up the majority of his time this morning.

Joe returned to the living room with the book in hand, and sat down on the arm chair in front of the fireplace. Ben watched his son open the cover and smiled to himself. Joe needed to give the book a chance, he might be surprised and actually like it. Lord knows that he seemed to devour that dime store crime novel that was up in his own room with a lot more interest.

Half an hour later, it was clear though that the subject of Adam’s book was not keeping Joe’s attention at all. Several times Ben had looked up from his work, only to see his son squirming in the arm chair, fidgeting and constantly moving about, trying to find a comfortable position. There was nothing wrong with the chair, it was merely Joe unable to focus long enough to sit still and enjoy what he was supposed to be reading.

On the last occasion, Ben’s patience was beginning to wear thin. “Joseph will you please find something useful to do for this morning or I will find some school work for you

to do,” Ben threatened, knowing that his son was finding himself at somewhat of a lost end. Boredom was quickly setting in as it had been predicted.

Joe sat up immediately at that suggestion, looking back at his father. “I have been trying to do what you asked, Pa,” he declared. “I can’t help it if I don’t like it.”

Ben was trying to keep his temper from rising. Joe possessed an active imagination, sometimes a little too active if he were to be completely honest and recall some of the mischief his son had gotten caught up in. He let out an audible sigh though, thinking that perhaps it was too much to expect a fifteen year old to be quiet and keep occupied when he really wanted to be outside.

“Hop Sing,” Ben bellowed towards the kitchen.

The small oriental cook answered his name being called, “Why Mista Cartwright yell like that? Want hot coffee?”

“I apologize for shouting, Hop Sing. Coffee sounds wonderful and would be appreciated, thank you. The reason I called out is to ask if you have any small chores in the kitchen, that Joseph could do that would keep him occupied for a couple of hours?”

At first, Joe didn’t think that his father’s suggestion was much of a better one, but kept silent. At least if he was in the kitchen, he would have company. He never had a problem spending time with Hop Sing and watching him cook. There was usually an apple or two within reach that he could munch on.

“Lil’ Joe always welcome in kitchen,” Hop Sing answered, and was gesturing with his hand for the boy to come and join him. Joe was happy to comply, and set Adam’s book aside.

“Bring coffee back to you, Mista Cartwright,” the man said as guided his young charge into his culinary world.

“Thank you, Hop Sing,” Ben said quietly, pleased that he might be able to concentrate better now, knowing that Joe had something constructive to do and someone to talk to.

_________________________________________________________________________________

The time in the kitchen with Hop Sing had been progressing well for the first hour, as Joe began helping with the additional baking that was to be done.

Hop Sing usually did a week’s worth of baking of things such as bread, cakes and biscuits that would see the whole family through until the end of the week. When he did this, there only became necessary to bake an occasional apple or apricot pie for dessert during the week.

And this is where he was now, baking a few extra items outside of his normal weekend schedule. Despite all of his culinary expertise, it was often the case that he ran out of pastries and sweet things early due to having to keep up with Hoss’s appetite. Sugar cookies was another treat that Hop Sing made sure was always in ample supply.

Hop Sing didn’t mind cooking extra for his family. From his unique position in the household, he was able to see all of the Cartwright family through his own eyes. He had been there almost from the time Ben Cartwright arrived on the site of the yet to be built Ponderosa homestead. He had seen young boys grow into strong, mature and responsible men.

In Little Joe’s case, he would always have a special place in the little oriental man’s heart. Hop Sing was present when the tiny curly haired baby demanded to greet the world three weeks early. From the moment he saw the little infant, he had sworn an oath in his own native tongue to the gurgling child in the crib, that he would always be there no matter what. As the baby grew into a toddler and then into a small, active boy, those feelings only seemed to grow stronger, until Hop Sing felt more protective than ever over the youngest member of the family.

These feelings had been tested and set aside this morning though after Joe had been invited to help with the baking, and walked into the kitchen. Within this first hour, there was more flour and sugar on the kitchen floor and on Joe himself, than in the mixing bowls or filling the pastry.

Ben had been diligently at his desk, adding up some payroll figures when he heard the initial tirade of Cantonese followed by Little Joe racing from the kitchen with Hop Sing close behind wielding a rolling pin.

“You keep boy out of kitchen! Lil’ Joe too messy, floor all white with spilled flour. Father keep boy busy or no supper fixed tonight for anybody,” he said with finality as he went back into the kitchen muttering a phrase in his own language.

“I was trying to help, Pa,” Joe pouted, giving his best innocent and hurt look towards his father. He had tried to mix the batter the way he had been patiently shown. It looked so easy when he saw it being done at the beginning. Mixing the bread dough had required both hands, but after stirring for a few minutes, Joe had not wanted to tell the cook that his arm with the stitches was hurting from the action. Hop Sing only had to suspect that was true and he would have immediately tattle-tailed to his father.

Joe walked over closer to his father’s desk, and reaching up with his uninjured arm, brushed some of the snow white flour from his curly brown hair. “What do you want me to do now, Pa?” He looked down at the shirt he was wearing and saw that they hadn’t fared much better than his hair and had been showered with the fine white dust.

______________________________________________________________________________________

In Virginia City, not far from the saloon buildings and the mercantile agency, a man by the name of Henry Williams occupied a generous office space on the top floor.

Williams was a man of means and openly displayed his wealth in his wardrobe and mannerisms. His clothes were of the finest quality and made from fabrics that could not be purchased in this town. A pocket watch hung from his brocaded waistcoat by a heavy chain. He planned to improve his financial status over time, and sometimes that involved being prepared to be ruthless and decisive when it come to business dealings. There was a lot of money to be made in growing towns like Virginia City with people like himself knowing how to get it.

The man approached the door to his office, but stopped as he went to slide the key into the lock. Something wasn’t quite right, the lock had been disturbed. In these troubling times, one could not be too careful about their own personal safety and how they maintained it. Pulling a small pistol from the waist coat he was wearing, he took a deep breath, he turned the door knob and burst through the door, keeping the barrel of the firearm pointed out in front of him.

Displeasure crossed his features as he surveyed his office, and came across someone unexpected. He was tempted to keep the weapon pointed at the man, but lowered it after a few moments, and placed it back into its concealed position on his person.

“You didn’t really mean to come in here and shoot me with that puny thing did you,” a voice challenged him. The man behind the voice didn’t show one sign of being nervous or fearing Williams’ or the firearm.

“What are you doing in here?” Williams demanded. “Yes, you were supposed to meet me, I agreed with that. But here in Virginia City, where you could have been spotted leaving my office? Not exactly the ideal situation that is called for on this occasion, or one that I would have wanted.”

After exhaling a large plume of cigar smoke, the man asked a question of his own in return, “Don’t tell me that you have gotten cold feet already?” the man accused casually.

Williams walked over to a small cabinet in his office, and pulled out a short decanter of a dark spirit. He retrieved a small tumbler glass nearby and proceeded to pour a measure for himself. His eyes flickered up towards his uninvited guest with annoyance, “Would you like one?” he asked, not really being in a charitable mood.

The man proceeded to lift up a matching glass that had been sitting beside him. He had already helped himself to a large drink when entering the office. The man was reclining back on a leather arm-chair, and had his legs extended out, with his muddy boots scuffing the edge of a rectangular coffee table. He was dressed in a long travel coat, with the tails showing signs of age and splattered with dried mud.

Williams huffed at the man’s brazen attitude, “You know, I am already thinking that I may have made the wrong decision in selecting you for this particular task.”

“Oh do tell,” the stranger said with a mild laugh. He was amused at Williams’ attempt of standing over him. “Be my guest if you think you can find anybody else from here to San Francisco that would take on your little ‘task’ as you put it.”

“Thomas, I am paying you a substantial sum of money, and for that amount, I expect the job to be done swiftly and without the possibility of any of it being traced back to me,” Williams retorted. “The plan must be put in effect within the next couple of days, before the outcome of the contract is announced. No later, or any advantage that may be possible to gain will be totally useless.”

The other man in the room now stood up from the chair to his imposing full height, leaving his cigar butt in the ashtray. He approached Williams with purpose and grabbed a hold of the front of his fancy waistcoat, extracting a strangled gasp. He made sure that the words that he spoke had the maximum amount of impact.

“You will get your money’s worth, Williams, I assure you. As for all the little details of what is carried out and how, …. well that is for me and only me to decide, get the point?” Thomas said, pushing on the knot of his thin tie upwards, and tightening it around the man’s neck.

Williams was convinced that he had made a dangerous choice of who to complete the job, but he had not anticipated that his own life would be at put at risk. There was something about Thomas that unnerved the person he was talking to. Henry had been in the company of some questionable and vicious men before, but this man was cold and calculating. He could see right through you and know what someone was thinking before they opened their mouth.

Henry Williams didn’t speak a verbal answer, but slowly nodded his compliance with the unwritten terms and conditions of their association.

“Good, I am glad we have an understanding between each other,” Thomas said as he grinned and released his grip and the knot of the tie.

Williams coughed harshly, using his hand to rub his neck while he drew in fresh oxygen. This man that he had hired, Butch Thomas, was certainly someone not to underestimate. Maybe his methods would be a step too far in what he was trying to achieve. Perhaps he had better remind the man of that.

“I don’t want there to be any killing, Thomas,” Williams pointed out, regaining a little of his composure. “That is not what I planned or how I expect this to happen. Someone gets killed, and it is all going to blow up in both our faces. Yours included.”

“Who said anything about killing?” Thomas chuckled at the mere suggestion. “Your instructions for me were to scare this family away from gaining the contract you want so badly, right?”

“Right! The Cartwright family around here are very influential. They have a lot of money invested around here and tied up not just in Virginia City, but in a lot of the ranches further out in any number of directions. A number of other business holdings too from timber, to cattle and horses, mining and freight haulage. From here to Reno, Carson City and Placerville, plus a number of other forgettable places. Ben Cartwright has some serious connections in bigger cities like San Francisco too. And he counts a number of powerful people amongst his friends, including Governors and quite a few Sheriffs and Marshall’s in law enforcement,” Williams explained.

“Sounds like he might be too much of a man for you to handle,” Thomas taunted. “And if he has other kin……., Butch had heard the name of the family in a number of circles, but not enough about any of them individually to identify a weak spot that he could use to his advantage.

Williams was on the defensive and quick to interrupt, “I don’t care about the rest of that for now. I want that contract! Your job is to stop them from getting that timber contract by any means it takes without resorting to killing anybody.”

Thomas was prepared to toy with the man a while longer and listen to the methods he wanted to employee to achieve his goals. “How would you propose I proceed?”

“The less I know about your plans the better, but I can tell you that one of the Cartwright’s will be coming into Virginia City in about half an hour to submit their tender for the contract. You probably won’t be in time to stop that. Ben Cartwright owns a very large spread out of town, but they all come here regularly to conduct their other general business.”

“One of their hands, a man by the name of Frank Richards was fired from there only last night,” Williams revealed. “Given the right encouragement with the taste of liquor, you may be able to coax the right information out of him about the day to day movements of the family. I saw him down in the saloon a short time ago before coming up here. He is already drinking away his severance wages.”

Thomas was intrigued by this little piece of news. Gathering valuable information about any impending target could be most useful.

“There is a whole family of them, Ben is the father and head of the household, and there are three sons. I am not about to do your homework for you. Bend one of their elbows or make them see reason by some other more persuasive means, I don’t care. Find a way to make them change their mind,” Williams emphasised.

Without waiting for permission, Thomas confiscated the pocket watch that hung around Williams’ ample middle, and looked back at the man, daring him to object.

“I will head out now, but you had better be waiting here when I get back,” Thomas ordered. “Because like it or not, I intend to make sure that you get full credit as well as myself for whatever happens to the Cartwright family.”

___________________________________________________________________________________________

Downstairs, Thomas waited in a secluded alley way, not far from the Mercantile agency, where people were gathering to watch the interested parties in bidding for the timber contract. Within the first few minutes that he had been standing there, the crowd mulling around the proceedings that were taking place had grown substantially. They were all too busy with their own comings and goings to notice anybody observing from his protected position.

Pulling out the pocket watch that he had taken from Williams, and opening the outer silver case, Thomas glanced down at the watch and noted that perhaps his silent partner had been wrong about the Cartwright’s being a threat to him winning the prized contract. The tender closed at noon, but there was only five minutes left to go before that deadline. In the short time he had be standing here observing the other players, he hadn’t heard any mention of the Cartwright surname.

The other bidders who had already submitted their quotes and documentation for the lumber contract, had started to gather outside the Mercantile agency, waiting to establish the identity of their prospective rivals. Due to the size of the contract, there were only a few serious contenders in the area who would be able to supply the large amount of timber being sought.

Bill Scruggs who had a forest of trees for logging timber over forty miles away from the Ponderosa. A second bid had been placed by a Mister Abner Taylor. Not much was known about his company or his logging operation. The third bidder had sent a proxy to do his bidding for him. The man wanted to remain out of the public eye as much as possible. And that was Henry Williams himself.

Collins’ secretary, a Mister Eugene Nelson stepped out onto the wooden verandah and looked down at his own pocket watch. “Well gentlemen, it looks as though it is almost time to close the tender and start examining the bids.” Nelson said over the bridge of his round spectacles. “Before I announce that the tender is officially closed, is there any last minute bidders yet to place their documentation before me for determination?”

The sound of a galloping horse drew the crowd’s attention and could be heard coming down the street at a great pace. There were whispered conversations amidst the people gathered, speculating on who it could be.

Adam Cartwright soon came into view, pulling up at the hitching rail quite some distance from the agency and bolted down from his chestnut mount, Sport. He reached into his saddle bags and dashed towards Mister Nelson with the pouch containing the papers held out in his hand. By the time he reached the Mercantile, he was slightly out of breath from his efforts to make it on time.

The roads into Virginia City had been even worse than Ben had anticipated, or Adam had thought possible from only an overnight storm. Half way through his journey, he was thankful that his father had been cautious, and opted to keep his brother Joe home today and not allow him to ride along such roads on his own. There were large ruts in a number of areas of the road and some dangerous foot holes in places that would see a horse and rider come to grief if they were not totally concentrating.

“Mister Nelson, I apologize for my tardiness, this morning,” Adam spoke with his smooth, deep baritone voice. “The roads from the Ponderosa into town are very bad in patches.”

Thomas had been standing as far away from the crowd as he could, but made sure that he was able to hear what was being said. He took a step forward from his location, to peek at the last minute contender, observing the late arrival from beneath the brim of his own hat. The handsome and confident man was dressed in a red shirt, and was wearing a black vest and pants. The hat adorning his head was the same matching colour.

“That is perfectly alright, Mister Cartwright,” Nelson returned with a smile as the two men exchanged friendly handshakes. The pencil thin man took the leather pouch containing the documents. “I must admit, I was a little worried that you were not going to make it on time before submissions closed. I am sure that all your papers are in order, Adam. Please give my regards to your father when you return home.”

Nelson now took a few steps towards the rest of the crowd and addressed them as a whole group.

“Gentlemen, as you are probably aware and can appreciate, going over all of these papers is going to take time, and most likely more than one day. My colleague and I will look at all of your bids in turn and assess them according to merit. All of you are requested to return to this same place, one week from today, when my associate Mister Collins will announce the successful winner of the contract. I trust you all have a pleasant day,” he concluded, and then turned to walk back to the temporary and makeshift office he had created inside the Mercantile Agency.

“Henry Williams is not going to be very happy about this at all,” Thomas commented to himself with a chuckle. He watched the man identified as Adam Cartwright walk back to his horse, mount it and ride further down the street.

Thomas casually walked out of his concealed position, and travelled a short distance down the same side of the street. He would have to be careful in making sure that Cartwright didn’t suspect he was being followed.

Williams was right, he would have to do his homework if any plan was going to be successful in altering their intentions. He may as well start gathering what information he could about this particular Cartwright, before returning to Williams’ office.

________________________________________________________________________

Adam had not trotted very far down the road, but halted his progress when he saw the very person he was looking for, Doctor Paul Martin. He had been expecting and planning to go further towards his small office up on the second floor of another building. The doctor was walking past a row of stores down the other end of the street.

The doctor looked up when he heard his title and name being hailed by a familiar voice, and stopped to meet up with the man. He smiled as Adam Cartwright stopped his horse, and hitched Sport to the railing after dismounting from the saddle.

Neither Paul nor Adam noticed the stranger, Butch Thomas move close enough towards both of them to overhear their conversation. He knew very little about these Cartwright people, and much of what he heard was hearsay and word of mouth only, or provided by Henry Williams about their previous business dealings. Thomas wanted to find out for himself what sort of men these Cartwright’s were.

This one identified as Adam Cartwright certainly looked like a good enough adversary. Strongly built, tall, and intelligent he would guess after submitting the contract. ‘Was the rest of the family the same?’ Thomas asked himself. Perhaps Williams had been underestimating his competition and gaining this contract may be a bit beyond his reach. Maybe he would need to alter his plan and increase the stakes substantially to affect any outcome.

“Good Morning, Paul,” Adam greeted him, extending his hand and completing the handshake with the silver-haired gentleman known simply by many people in the town as Doc Martin.

“Good Morning, Adam,” Paul said enthusiastically in return. “What brings you into Virginia City today?” The doctor knew there could be any number of reasons. The Ponderosa was a large place and required a lot of hard work from that family to keep it operating smoothly.

“I barely made it in time to submit a bid for a new contact for the timber operation,” Adam informed him. “The roads coming in here were atrocious after all the rain last night.”

“Thankfully, I was able to make it home safely after leaving your house, before that storm settled in for the rest of the night,” Paul commented. “The rain was coming down in buckets. I have already located three leaks in the roof my surgery and office.”

It was the next few pieces of information that he would overhear, that provided Thomas with a whole lot more insight into the family dynamics. And perhaps presented an opportunity to exploit.

“Last night, after you left, it seems that my brother became a little more restless and had trouble sleeping during the early morning hours, and his temperature soared. High enough for my father to become worried and for him to stay with him, trying to cool the boy down. He wanted me to find you in town this morning, and ask if wouldn’t mind coming back out to the ranch to take another look at Little Joe,” Adam explained.

“A fever developed you say?” Paul said, pursing his lips together and pondering the symptoms that were being reported to him. “Joe did have a low grade fever when I examined him, and that was expected to some degree. Hoss brought him back from that hunting trip yesterday, but those claw marks from that bear cub were certainly deep enough to cause trouble. I cleaned them out as best I could before putting those stitches in. Wounds made by any animal are unpredictable at anytime, and there is a risk of infection to watch out for.”

“My father made the decision to keep Joe home from school today due to them both losing sleep, and as a precaution. You know how he feels about his youngest son,” Adam remarked.

Paul Martin nodded his head in acknowledgement, knowing how much truth was behind those words. If there was anything more stable in this world of uncertainty, it was the unconditional love that Ben Cartwright showed any of his sons. Especially towards the youngest member of the family, Joseph, when he was sick or injured. There was no secret to the fact that Hoss, Adam, the workers at the ranch, or the residents of Virginia City that Ben looked out for the boy at every turn.

“I will just retrieve my bag from my office, Adam, and I will get out there as I make my way back from the Wilson farm,” Paul replied. “That is where I was headed to in a few minutes. I hope my buggy can make it all the way out there, considering how badly you told me the roads already are. Rebecca is due to have her baby towards the end of next week, but may come at any time.”

“I am headed back to the Ponderosa very soon; the yard there this morning is a mess too after all the rain. As a priority though, when I get there, I intend to put together a team of the men together and go out to fix the worst of the damage before we lose the sunlight light today,” Adam reported.

“Drive carefully out there, Paul,” Adam warned as he walked away from the doctor and gathered the reins of his horse and mounted. “I have one final errand to complete at the schoolhouse with the teacher, Miss Jones before I head back to the ranch.”

“Tell your father not to worry, and I will see you both soon, and of course, Joe,” Paul said with a small grin, and watched the man ride back down the street in the direction of the school.

Butch Thomas’ mind started filtering some of the information he was hearing. When observing Adam Cartwright, he estimated the man’s age to be a few years shy of thirty years old. The man had been speaking to the doctor about someone else in the family who still attended school. He had assumed from the brief clues given by Williams, that all of the Cartwright’s were grown men. After listening to the short exchange moments ago, it appeared that was not the case.

Fortuity may have just presented an opportunity that he could use to gain an advantage over the Cartwright family. Real leverage, and he would have no qualms about putting to good use if he deemed it necessary. People often responded better to demands when something they cared greatly about was placed in peril. In this case, someone. Neither he or Williams were above providing the right amount of incentive by blackmail or physical force to obtain their objectives.

Williams used money to gain notoriety, and usually hired the people he needed to carry out any dirty work that was required for him. There may be a way to persuade the Cartwright family to withdraw their bid from the timber contract. Applying just the right amount of pressure would be crucial to enforcing that threat.

Thomas quickly withdrew from his current position in the shadows and walked down the street in the opposite direction that Adam Cartwright had taken. He remembered Williams’ comment about the ranch hand drinking in one of the saloons.

_______________________________________________________________________

The hour was just after lunch when Thomas entered the saloon through the two swinging doors. This watering hole was reserved for a much lower class of patron than people like Williams or the Cartwright family. The smell of tobacco smoke permeated the air and the stench of hard liquor was on every surface, from the bar to the floor.

There were no pretty barmaids to serve drinks in this establishment, and only one poor, down-trodden barkeep, who was pouring whiskey into filthy glasses. Thomas was almost knocked over by another man being hurled through the swinging doors onto the street outside. The result of a good hard punch to the face for being accused of cheating at cards.

Seated at the bar, holding to on an almost empty bottle of whiskey and with his head hanging low, one man drew Butch’s gaze. He walked over to the bar, stood beside him, looking him up and down. He wasn’t sure if this was the right person yet, but wasn’t about to ask his name outright and draw attention to himself. He could be patient for a while longer.

Five minutes later, the man tossed a coin onto the bar beside his empty glass, “Give me another bottle,” he slurred. There was still liquor at the bottom of the bottle he was holding, but he decided that he didn’t want that.

“Don’t you think you have had enough friend?” the barkeep asked, trying to get him to leave the saloon and fall down someplace else. But he picked up the coin and placed the new bottle beside the same glass.

“Hey, don’t you be calling me your friend, I don’t e-even know y-you,” the man declared angrily, wavering his arm about in displeasure, but almost over-balancing and falling off the stool instead. “My money in here is just as good as a-anybody else’s. And that’s good money too. Come from those no-good cow-pokes, think they are better than anybody else, Cartwrights.”

Thomas grinned to himself, confident with the mention of the name Cartwright, that he had found the right man.

“Steady there,” Thomas said smoothly, keeping the man upright, and pouring a measure from the new bottle. “Your money is just as good as any man in here. The name is Smith,” he said to the man, waiting to see if he would give his own name in return.

“Darn-tootin’ it is,” the man said, giving a wide, toothy grin to the stranger who had just poured his drink. He didn’t notice that Thomas had poured himself a drink from the same new bottle. “Richards,” he said, peering back through bloodshot eyes. “You can call me Frank.”

“I heard you talking about them high and mighty Cartwright’s,” Thomas started talking, followed by drinking the shot of whiskey.

“Don’t talk to me about them varmints,” Frank shot back with anger surfacing again. He tried to take another drink himself, but ended up spilling more of the contents of the glass on himself. “That old coot of a boss told me I was no good working with them cows. Said I didn’t know the front end of a cow from the back end. He ain’t a Cartwright, but he works for them and is just as bad as them in my books.”

“Let’s move over to a table friend, where we can be a little more comfortable and talk,” Thomas suggested.

“Why are we doing that for?” came the confused question, but Butch was already moving the bottle and glasses to one of the back tables.

“I don’t like crowds much when I drink,” Thomas replied. “Back here, I can see who is coming and going without worrying about anybody sneaking up on me.”

“Good idea,” Richards said, loosely following what was being said. Walking across the bar-room, he was very uncoordinated and almost sat down at the wrong empty table.

Thomas saw the merits of plastering him with more alcohol, but he wanted the man talking more about the Cartwright family before he lost the ability to think and passed out from being too drunk.

“So you worked for them and they just fired you for no reason?” Thomas asked, choosing his words carefully. “Do you get to talk to the youngest member of the family very much? Joe isn’t it?” trying to remember what name the brother had used in front of the doctor.

“Little Joe they call him; heard some things about him from the other men in the bunk house, but never met him yet. Got told he is a real nice young fella; a little on the skinny side, but got l-lots of growin’ up to do yet I guess,” Richards answered. A few burps escaped his mouth, and he wiped the excess spittle from his mouth on the sleeve of his shirt.

“Those Cartwright’s tend to keep strangers and people who haven’t worked there for long away from the main house and that boy,” Frank continued. “No idea why. I never did get to asking too many questions about the family out there. But I seen them coming and going often enough.”

Thomas frowned at this new piece of information, thinking it was rather odd that someone had worked there for a couple of months, but hadn’t personally met the boss’s son yet. Especially after listening to William’s account of how prominent the family were in the area.

“Maybe he is a spoilt rich man’s son and they have been teaching him bad habits to their way of thinking,” Thomas prompted.

“Don’t rightly know for sure,” Richards answered. “Them older two boys looks down on everybody, especially that eldest one. Would be a shame if the boy was nice like they reckon and they were looking to do that to him.”

Butch listened to the man, thinking back to Adam Cartwright whom seen in the street. The way he was dressed and the fine animal that he was riding; could be who Richards was describing now.

“The b-big one, he is not so bad, and works hard with the rest of the m-men,” Frank slurred about Hoss.

“Why do you w-want to know about them C-Cartwright’s anyway? Richards asked, with his head hanging low over the glass he had just poured. “You ain’t looking for a job out there now are you? Because I lost mine.” Richards was rapidly losing track of the conversation.

Thomas was trying to get Richard to talk more about what secrets he knew about the family. He had gained a few clues, but he wanted more. By now the liberal amount of whiskey had pickled the man’s tongue and he was having trouble following any further questions. He was taking too long to come up with any useful answers and Butch was growing impatient.

“Now I just need to find me some way to make some money,” Richards commented out of the blue about having no job or way to earn a living.

Thomas looked about the bar-room and made sure that nobody was paying attention to the two of them still talking and drinking together.

Butch smiled widely, “I might have a new job for you, if you are interested?” he offered. “You would like a chance to get back at that Cartwright family wouldn’t you? Take back a bit more of that money that they owe you for the time you worked out there?”

Butch clenched a fresh cigar stump between his teeth and lit it, leaning back against the back of the chair, waiting for Richards to make a decision.

“Does it pay any good?” Frank asked hesitantly. He wasn’t risking his neck for a bag of beans like what he got from the old wrangler last night when he was tossed out.

“My friend……… the payout I suspect shall be very good, so long as you do everything I say,” Thomas confirmed with the hint of warning.

Richards looked up at Thomas for a minute, waiting for his brain to catch up with what was being said. “What do you want me to do?” The man was definitely being cautious, even with the copious amount of alcohol he had consumed.

Frank knew he had done some illegal stuff before. Pinching goods from stores when folks weren’t looking, and a few other minor illegal things. Small time potatoes to some people probably. But the tone of this man’s voice told him that something else was being waved under his nose.

“Nothing much,” Thomas answered casually. “I don’t aim to be working for the Cartwright’s, but I am going to take the kid away from them. Keep him quiet for a few days and out of sight.

“Joe?” Richards squeaked out at such an outlandish idea. “You ain’t going to hurt him none are you? He ain’t even growed up full yet.”

“No, I don’t plan on hurting the boy,” Thomas lied. “Just keep him out of town for a few days, then return him to his family, nice and safe like when they come up with some money. A lot of money,” he said in proposal.

“Money is kinda scarce at the moment,” Frank agreed. “I don’t know iffn’ they be hiring the likes of me at any of the new m-mines that are opening up. Working underground don’t rightly appeal to me very much neither.”

“All that dangerous work in one of those dark pits for a few measly dollars a week?” Thomas scoffed in jest. “No siree, not something I will be looking to do if something else came along that wouldn’t require that amount of effort.”

“I reckon Ben would pay anything to stop something happening to any of his sons,” Richards pondered. “That old man Cartwright would probably pay plenty more to get that youngest boy of his back.”

“You meet me five miles out of town on the road to the Ponderosa before sun-up tomorrow morning, nice and sober like,” Thomas instructed. “Don’t be late, or you will be missing out on your share of the loot.”

Thomas was planning on explaining the finer details of his plan once the man was sober enough to understand them. Richards knew the layout of the Ponderosa and where the best section of the road would be to lay in ambush. He may also know of a place where they could stash the boy far enough out of town and away from the ranch without being spotted, once the trap had been set.

Butch made his way out of the saloon, leaving the half empty bottle of whiskey on the table in front of Richards who was now slumped across it. He would do some looking himself out at the ranch later on tonight, just to be certain. If Frank didn’t turn up on time, or was still under the weather, then he would need to enact his own secondary plan to snatch the boy without the additional pair of hands.

Making his way back to William’s office, he didn’t want to stick around long enough to be noticed. Henry stood up as Butch Thomas loomed just inside the wooden door frame.

“Richards proved to be somewhat useful,” Thomas told him. “Everything happens tomorrow, so make sure you go about your business as usual. Have my money ready.”

Once he was alone again, Williams pulled out a checkered handkerchief and used it to wipe away the nervous sweat rolling down the back of his neck. There was no backing out now, he would have to sit back and wait to see what unfolded.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Thomas made his way to an small abandoned building in town where he had been squatting for the past few days. His horse was stabled there, along with the few meagre possessions he owned. His bedroll and saddle bags were there too.

Butch already had two other men in mind that he could use for the job tomorrow in addition to Richards. One, Robert Pierce he had worked with before. The man didn’t talk very much, but was handy with a gun and he didn’t ask a lot of questions about the work he was doing either. They weren’t friends, but they both had been part of a larger group of men that had been used in a previous bank hold-up and stagecoach robbery. He was from the local area too which was a bonus, and he knew how to keep his mouth shut.

The second person, younger and much more prone to shooting off his mouth when he had too much to drink was Danny Griffiths. For now he would suffice well enough until the task was completed and the Cartwright’s had withdrawn their bid for the lumber contract. In this business, there was no guarantee that he was going to share any of the ill-gotten spoils with them.

Thomas only needed these three men for the first part of his plan, he would talk to the other two men this afternoon before heading out along the road to the Ponderosa.

After that, he could make a decision on whether or not to keep any of them around, or split up and allow them to go their separate ways. There was the third option of not letting any of them to stay alive after he had collected the money.

Butch was aware that he wouldn’t be able to rely on getting any of the supplies he needed from here in Virginia City. He couldn’t afford to draw any heat in case someone remembered him later. He didn’t want any of the men he was looking to hire, to being recognized after making a purchase in the local general store

Thomas knew that his associate, Henry Williams wanted this lumber contract badly. It was the only thing that Thomas had heard the man talk about during their infrequent meetings over the last month. Williams had made it abundantly clear that he wanted the contract no matter what. He had reiterated that very fact less than an hour ago in his office. The overweight businessman was supremely confident that his quote was the only one that posed any real threat to the Cartwright family winning outright.

When Collins had first demonstrated his interest in obtaining large quantities of timber within the area, Williams had been quick to pull the new mining entrepreneur aside and forcibly impress on the man, his desire and ability to fulfill the mine’s needs. Collins had backed away from those bullish tactics and openly invited tenders from all over the district before making a final decision.

Thomas wasn’t fussed who he worked for or what that work entailed. He was prepared to take on work that other men baulked at or backed away from. In places some distance from Virginia City, he had quickly gained a reputation of being a harsh man, with a mean fist and a quick draw with his pistol. Folks in this town knew him a whole lot less, and that suited him just fine. Being unknown, he could easily blend into a crowd and hide in plain sight, keeping the true nature of his activities undisclosed.

__________________________________________________________________________________

Outside of the schoolhouse, Adam had completed his last errand in town by talking to Miss Summers about any work that Joe would be missing by being absent today.

He then had a short and informal discussion with Miss Jones, about her attempts to sway Joe into making a decision about college.

When he first brought up the subject with the woman responsible, Miss Jones had clearly been taken aback by this new attitude she had not seen before in Adam Cartwright. She had assured him that the boy must have exaggerated the part she had played. She reminded Adam that Joe was a young man who needed a firm talking to at times, and often day-dreamed out of the window instead of paying attention.

Adam told the teacher that he didn’t have the time this afternoon to stand there and debate with her about what he had learned. He wanted Miss Jones to allow Joe to enjoy what remained of his education, and not constantly make comparisons about what he had achieved as her student. They were two different people and deserved to be treated as individuals, even if they shared the same last name.

Miss Summers had been a very positive influence on Joe over the past several years, and Adam wanted to make sure that she was aware of what the headmistress was trying to do. He reported to her what Joe had shared with Hoss, and the impact that it was having on him wanting to attend school. Rebecca had promised to look into the matter and keep a closer watch on Joe’s grades and aptitude when he was in her class.

Miss Jones was still convinced that she could talk more to Adam and get him to come around to her point of view, but that would have to wait as she watched him mount his horse and started riding away towards the Ponderosa.

Adam needed to get back and inform his father about the state of the road. Hopefully with enough time left in the day, he could get a group of the men together and do some repairs before the afternoon was lost and the sunlight faded. On the journey back, he made note of where the worst damage was, planning to repair those areas first.

_______________________________________________________________________________

After changing his flour dusted clothes, Joe came back downstairs into the living room, but was at somewhat of a lost end of how to spend his time. Within the space of half an hour, Joe had moved from sitting on the settee, to the armchair he had occupied earlier, back to the settee.

The boy had even gotten up and opened the front door, but closed it again, knowing that it was pointless and already guessing what his father’s answer would be to his unspoken question.

Ben was having trouble concentrating on his own work, as his gaze kept watching Joe’s forlorn expression as he examined each piece of furniture in turn. The boy wasn’t deliberately being stubborn or wilful, but his continual moving about the room was distracting.

“Son, would you like to share an early lunch?” Ben finally asked, trying to get Joe interested in something else other than having to spend his time inside.

A few of years, before he turned fourteen years old, Joe had a creative outlet for when he was stuck inside healing from an injury or recovering after illness. From the age of seven he had shown some talent at drawing and spent a lot of his time practicing. Of course his favourite subjects to draw was horses.

Now those sketch books were kept on a shelf in his wardrobe upstairs. Tucked away where nobody could see them anymore and they hadn’t been added to and the pages viewed by any member of the family for more than a year. The beautiful artwork contained within those pages would probably never see the light of day again unfortunately. Ben didn’t have the heart to bring up such a poignant subject today, even if it would help his son pass the time constructively.

Joe let out an audible sigh to demonstrate the level of his boredom, and sat down on top of the coffee table that was in front of the large fireplace. “No thanks, Pa, I am not very hungry,” he answered glumly.

Playing with a deck of cards in his hands, he shuffled them and then began spreading them out in an indistinct pattern. “I am bored, Pa.”

Ben was trying not to raise his voice in exasperation at his son’s disinterest and despondent mood. “Please don’t sit on the coffee table, Joseph,” he requested politely, trying to direct his brooding thoughts towards something else. “How are the stitches in your arm feeling now?”

Joe stood up, looking down at the bandage around his arm. The stitches still hurt quite a lot and he had been trying to ignore the discomfort for most of the morning. It hadn’t been easy with his father being in the same room and continually watching from his desk.

“It’s fine, Pa,” Little Joe answered, but for his father, his answer came out a little too quickly. Ben was about to put down his pen and demand a more honest answer. Before he could do exactly that, Joe deflected any further comment by picking up the book from Adam for a second time. He walked over to the striped settee and sprawled himself on his back along the uncomfortable cushions and opened the cover.

The boy had taught himself over the years to hide his grimaces of discomfort and mask his aches and pains from everybody. A habit that Ben would prefer that he had not learnt quite so well. The family had tried to adapt as best they could and watch for the telltale signs that were often present.

Ben delayed getting up from his desk, not wanting to provoke an argument with Joe. He suspected that his arm had been causing him pain during the morning. When it came to being sick or injured, none of his boys liked the forced inactivity that usually followed. And Joe was certainly no exception, especially when it came to having to be examined by a doctor like Paul Martin.

Twenty minutes later, Ben was suddenly drawn away from his books and ledgers by the total silence of the room. This time he did rise from his desk due to his full view of settee being obscured. Approaching quietly from around the piece of furniture, he smiled tender-heartedly at the reason. Joe was laying on his side, with his knees bent and his legs drawn up in a slightly curled up position, sound asleep. The book had fallen down as he had turned over and was grasped precariously in one hand.

Hop Sing came into the room, silently standing beside him but holding a lightweight blanket he had fetched from the linen chest. Ben smiled at the man’s uncanny ability to know what his family needed. He accepted the blanket and began spreading it over his son with thanks. Using the palm of his hand, he placed it gently across Joe’s forehead, checking his temperature.

Much to his delight, only a small amount of residual heat was present. The fever was almost gone. Joe had frowned at his father’s touch momentarily, but then faded back into a deeper state of sleep. His body was trying to regain some of the lost hours of sleep from last night, and Ben was very pleased with that. Reaching down, he rescued the book from Joe’s sleep limp hand before drawing the edge of the soft blanket up over his shoulder.

Ben couldn’t help but feel the lump in his throat, noting how painfully similar his son resembled his beautiful wife, Marie. The likeness was even more evident when those dark lashes closed over the boy’s emerald green eyes in slumber. The soft brown curls behind his ears and at the back of his neck, made the boy appeared much younger than his age of fifteen years.

____________________________________________________________________

Before resuming work at his desk, Ben used the opportunity of his son not being able to note his absence to his advantage. He exited the back door through the kitchen to head out to the yard and speak briefly to Charlie the head foreman. He had forgotten to bring up one matter with the man when he had been out in the barn earlier.

As he started heading back to the house to begin his paperwork again, he heard the unmistakable sound of horses hooves approaching. A few moments later Adam rode into view, stopping short before the middle of the yard, trying to avoid the mud.

“Good to see you return safely, Adam,” Ben said in a pleased tone, as he watch his son dismount and tie the reins loosely to the hitching rail. “Were you successful in getting to Virginia City on time?”

“Yes, I was as a matter of fact, with oh, moments to spare,” Adam replied, his face displaying how close he had been to missing the deadline. From what little I could find out, there were three other bids lodged in addition to our own.”

“Come on inside for a spell,” Ben said, as the two of them walked towards the house. “Did you eat lunch yet?”

“No, but I want to make a start on putting a team of men together and heading out to fix some of the bad patches in the road. You were right this morning to keep Joe from riding on it; there are some treacherous sections,” Adam warned. “I want to get as much done as possible before sundown.”

Ben’s brow creased into a frown at Adam’s report on how bad the road was. By now the two of them were by the front door.

“Oh, before you head inside, please keep the noise down. Joseph is sleeping on the settee,” Ben informed him. “He has been wandering around the house all morning complaining about having nothing to do. He even had Hop Sing chasing him out of the kitchen. His fever is almost gone. Finally tiredness won out not long before you rode in.”

Adam entered the house alongside his father, removing his hat and gun belt, the two of them keeping any sound to a minimum. He would not have been surprised to hear raised voices upon his return instead. He laughed a little inwardly at the thought of his father admitting to having trouble in keeping an active fifteen year old boy entertained.

The two of them moved out of earshot towards Ben’s desk and further away from Joe. “At least he was trying to read the book you left him. Twice.”

“Oh, well that is good to hear that he is attempting to expand his reading repertoire,” Adam said with a pleased look on his face, but it dropped again when he saw the smirk coming from his father.

“Why do you think he finally fell asleep?” Ben offered with a quiet laugh as the expression on Adam changed so suddenly.

“His arm has been causing him some discomfort,” Ben commented with a change to his voice, and all joking put aside. “Not that he would tell me of course. When I asked him about it…..,”

Adam interrupted before his father finished speaking, “Let me guess, he told you he was ‘fine’.

“When I was in town, I managed to complete all of my errands. That includes talking to Miss Summers at the schoolhouse. She intends to talk to him about any work that he missed by being away today. More importantly, she is going to keep a closer eye on him after I told her what Hoss reported to us.”

“That will he helpful at least. Joe likes that teacher and has thrived better under her tutelage, whereas he had been struggling under Miss Jones’ methods of teaching before that,” Ben remarked. He didn’t like comparing the two teachers to each other. They were very different people, but the improved results of Joe’s grades under one and not the other were undeniable.

“On that note, I spoke to Miss Jones and pressed on her that Joe had plenty of time yet to make up his own mind about college. Time was running short, and I wanted to get back here to get started on that roadwork. I suspect there may need to be another meeting with the head mistress yet with myself and perhaps even you to add our weight to any decision that is made,” Adam explained. “She wasn’t quite ready to accept that her actions were responsible for Joe being reluctant to keep attending school.”

“Well, for now, those discussions will have to wait until another day,” Ben responded. For now he hoped that Adam’s talk with both teachers would be enough to let matters settled on their own accord.

“After submitting the contract, I did go looking for Paul at his office, but I didn’t need to go that far,” Adam stated. “He was walking down the street, not far from the Mercantile agency. I told him what had happened overnight with Joe’s temperature. He promised to come out when he could, but he had to visit the Wilson farm first. Another baby is due out that way very soon.”

“I don’t need to see the doctor, Pa,” came the well-known voice from the direction of the settee.

“And all this time you have been underestimating Joe’s power of selective hearing,” Adam poked in jest at his father with a sly grin. “How are you feeling this afternoon, Joe?”

“I thought you were asleep, Joseph?” Ben questioned. He was hoping that his son hadn’t overheard the conversation he and Adam had shared about Miss Summers and the school headmistress.

Both men walked over closer to Joe, watching as the blanket that had been covering him, slipped down from his shoulders as he sat up and pooled in his lap. After seeing Joe rubbing tiredly at his face, Ben guessed that Joe had only awoken at hearing the mention of the doctor.

“Fine!” Joe announced with a slight scowl on his face. “I don’t need to see the doctor,” he repeated. He was most unimpressed on how this day was turning out.

How things had turned against him so much over the past few hours he couldn’t fathom. He had already been chased by Hop Sing when he was only trying to help. He hadn’t been allowed to do anything else before lunch except look at the internal walls of the house. And now, Adam had arrived home only to tell him that Doctor Martin would be coming out to the ranch as well. To prod and poke him no doubt, and tell his father that all he needed was some rest. He had just finished doing exactly that. In Joe’s opinion, more ‘rest’ was the last thing he wanted to do right now.

Ben was about to say a few words, but Adam could see his brother’s unhappy mood about being cooped up in the house and took it upon himself to help out both his brother and his father at the same time.

“I am about to head out to the barn and gather those men together and what we will need in a wagon,” Adam directed at this father, but glancing occasionally at his brother as he spoke. “That road going to Virginia City needs some repairing today.”

“There are quite a lot of dangerous ruts and crevices that have been created due to the deluge and subsequent water run-off from the storm last night,” Adam continued, pleased to see that his brother was listening. “I want to backfill those holes before someone gets hurt. Somebody riding out along that road and not looking where they were going could be put at risk of having an accident. He was giving his father as many clues as he could about the proposal he had in mind by using Joe as an example of ‘someone’ without deliberately saying his name out loud.

On any normal day when he was riding to and from school, or anywhere else, Joe rode his horse at neck breaking speed. Usually when he was too far out of sight, and his father wasn’t watching of course. Cochise could step into an unseen hole, or skid suddenly when Joe was racing her down that long, narrow stretch of uneven ground. Both horse and rider could be put be seriously injured or killed.

Ben was astute enough to pick up Adam’s not so subtle suggestions. “I suppose you would like your younger brother to accompany you this afternoon, whilst you and the men complete this work?” He watched the immediate impact on Joe’s face as he spoke.

Joe’s head quickly snapped up at hearing that his brother might be willing to rescue him from his forced boredom. And there it was, the puppy dog look that Hoss often fell for and was known to quote about. “Could I really, Pa?”

Adam and Ben both rolled their eyes at the boy’s antics and seeing those expressive green eyes and hearing that ‘innocent’ voice that all the Cartwright family knew oh so well.

“I don’t see why not,” Ben began, “As long as you stick with Adam, and listen to everything that he tells you to do, without giving him and argument to the contrary,” he added with a warning. He saw a smile appear on Joe’s face as he nodded his head in agreement of the rules that were being set.

Using his prerogative, he wanted to tack on one more condition in order to gain his permission. As a father, he made sure that going with Adam was only going to happen when one other task had been completed to his satisfaction. “After you have checked over by, Doc Martin.”

Adam almost laughed out loud as he noted a scowl marring Joe’s handsome face in an instant. The expression changed so dramatically and so quickly, it couldn’t be missed. His father joined in as well as they chuckled at the performance.

_________________________________________________________________________________

Being left with no choice but to comply if he wanted any chance of going riding with Adam, Joe waited impatiently for another half and hour. Before long, the three people inside the homestead heard the sound of a horse outside in the yard.

Adam went to the front door and opened it, “The very person that you have been dreading, has arrived to save you from your fate, Joe,” he announced. He watched the doctor climb out from his small buggy, walking towards the house with his small black bag in hand.

“Good afternoon, Paul,” Adam greeted him with a handshake for the second time today. “Joe has been anxiously waiting for you.”

“If Little Joe is waiting for me to come and examine him, then he must be much worse off than you reported to me earlier in town, Adam,” Doc Martin retorted back with a knowing grin. “Thank you for warning me about those ruts on the road here. The wheels of my buggy were in danger of getting stuck on a couple of occasions.”

“Afternoon, Doctor,” Ben said as he stepped up behind his eldest son, and offered a friendly handshake in greeting as well. “Joseph, don’t you have something to say?” he asked, turning his head back towards the settee.

“Your opinion and report will determine if Joe is allowed to leave the inside of this prison this afternoon and go riding with me,” Adam informed Paul.

“Afternoon, Doc Martin,” Joe said politely, but dropping his head in dismay, knowing that soon he would be poked and prodded by the family friend and physician.

“Now that is how I remember Joe greeting me during the last few visits,” Paul said, not offended by the boy’s downcast body language and lack of enthusiasm at his presence. He had many years of practice at treating this young man, and was able to spot when he truly wasn’t feeling well or experiencing pain with some degree of accuracy.

“Adam tells me that you just came from the Wilson farm?” Ben asked, keeping the conversation light as the doctor came into the living room and set his bag down on the coffee table.

“Mrs Wilson is close to having her baby, but I am worried about her having some trouble during the delivery. I may have to make a few trips out there again in the near future,” Paul answered with concern. “For the moment, let me take a look at this young man,” he said focusing on the patient seated in front of him.

“Relax for me Joe, and I promise this will all be over in a few minutes,” Paul spoke gently. He was able to detect some mild apprehension on Joe’s part that wasn’t part of being bored or having to stay inside. “Roll up your sleeve please, I should be able to reach the bandage without you needing to take off your shirt.”

“Place this under your tongue please,” the doctor instructed, holding out a small glass thermometer. He was pleased when the boy didn’t openly object to its presence in his mouth.

Joe nodded his head, but didn’t offer any small talk as he used his left hand to unbutton the cuff and do as the doctor requested. Paul carefully untied the ends of the white bandage, silently watching for any trace of discomfort or pain showing on Joe’s face as he did so. He was half way through unwinding the fabric and the boy had jerked away in pain at least twice, giving a grimace and attempting to turn away.

The doctor used a gentle hand to hold the arm in place a little longer, and push the sleeve a little higher to gain better access to the wounds the bear cub had left behind. “I am sorry Joe, I know this is hurting you.”

Ben and Adam had both seen Joe’s reaction, and saw him briefly squeeze his eyes closed and grimace silently.

“Thankfully, I don’t think there is too much for you to be worried about, Ben,” Paul reported after examining the stitches and taking note of the wound. He took a fresh bandage from his bag and re-wrapped the deep scratches as he spoke. “The wounds still look nasty, but they are nice and clean and there is no sign of infection.”

Paul removed the thermometer and looked at the reading critically, “Your temperature is back to normal, Joe. That is a very good sign of the healing process heading in the right direction.”

“I am sorry if I was over-reacting and called you out here without a valid reason, Doctor,” Ben commented. He was very pleased to hear Paul’s report. “It was quite concerning earlier this morning. Joseph had a headache and acted a little confused when I noticed how high it was.”

“No need to apologize, Ben,” Paul answered. “I don’t doubt that it was higher today than last night. I notice it being slightly raised myself yesterday before I left. I know you worry sometimes, but it is best to be cautious with any wounds made by an animal. Infection can set in and take hold in a very short period of time.”

Paul finished tying the ends of the new bandaged, pulling down Joe’s sleeve, and giving his shoulder a friendly squeeze. “Thank you, Joe, you did very well,” he added in praise.

“Can I go riding with Adam, please?” Joe asked the doctor, with a hopeful look on his face. He had done everything his father had asked of him. Yes his arm was hurting when the doctor was checking it, but he didn’t want to miss out on the chance to go outside because it was bothering him.

Paul looked at Joe for a minute, then up at Ben, before giving his final diagnosis. “I think you should be perfectly alright to return to school tomorrow, Joe. Although I suspect that your arm is still going to sore over the next couple of days. So long as you take care of yourself and avoid playing any rough games, you shouldn’t have any problems. Promise me that you will let your teacher know if it is hurting at any time.”

“I promise,” Joe readily agreed, but he was still holding his breath slightly and waiting to hear about riding today, rather than the rules about returning to school tomorrow.

“In regards to this afternoon,” Doc Martin continued, “I told your father last night, that I don’t want you lifting or carrying anything heavy over that same couple of days. The stitches will give those deep scratches time to start mending, but not if you are using your arm too much. I think you can be released and allowed to join your brother.”

“That really means a lot to me, Doc,” Joe said giving a beaming smile, getting to his feet, and shaking the man’s hand. “Thanks” he added, scurrying up the stairs towards his bedroom.

Ben, Adam and Paul all exchanged smiles at the improvement in Joe’s mood at being told he could go riding.

“Other than his arm, Ben, he is fit as a fiddle,” Paul said in conclusion, packing up his black bag and preparing to leave. “Goodbye, my friends. Let me know if you need me again.”

“Thank you for coming at such short notice, Paul,” Ben gave in genuine honesty. “I really do appreciate it, even if I dragged you out here only to quash my own concerns.”

“You are very welcome,” Paul replied. “I will check on the stitches in a few days, they should be ready to come out in about seven to ten days time. I will probably be travelling back out to the Wilson farm again during that time. Thank you for warning, Adam. Hopefully by the time you make it out there with your men, I will have made it back safely to Virginia City.”

_____________________________________________________________________________

Ben and Adam returned inside after seeing the doctor depart in his buggy in time to see Joe coming back down the stairs and ready to go with Adam out to the barn.

Adam had been putting together a list of tools and equipment he would be needed to put together, as well as speaking to the men about the task. He wanted to depart within the hour if possible.

“I want you to heed the doctor’s advice, Joe, and remember what he said about any heavy lifting,” Ben said, placing his hands on Joe’s shoulders and making sure he had his full attention. “Be careful, please,” he added with a smile, giving the boy a small hug of affection.

“I will, Pa, and listen to what Adam tells me,” Joe affirmed. He accepted that his father wanted to watch over him a little too much at times. Opportunities like the one Adam was offering him didn’t come along very often during a school week. The chance to get out and do things on his horse was going to be great, and something that he didn’t want to miss.

“Make sure that you take your other jacket with you, Joseph,” Ben reminded his son. “The weather is growing cooler by the day in the afternoon, and that breeze may pick up considerably when you are out on that road. I will order you a new sheep-skin jacket next time I visit Mister Perkins store. The season is rapidly changing and snow isn’t that far away.”

“When you get out to the horses, Adam or one of the other men can saddle Cochise for you,” Ben stated. “I know you can do it yourself, but not today,” he added firmly, seeing that his son was about to argue that point.

The first sign of a frown appeared on the boy’s face at the way he was being treated, but he erred on the side of caution about voicing any objections out loud. If he protested too much, his father may revoke any permission he had given. Joe plucked the blue jacket his father had mentioned from the peg behind the wooden door.

“I expect we will be back long before it gets dark and in plenty of time for supper,” Adam told his father as he began directing his brother towards the barn. He was hoping the activity would help stimulate Joe’s appetite at dinner, and he would be hungry enough to eat a little more.

“You can supervise and make sure that I am doing it right,” Adam offered to his brother in compromise as he gathered his hat and gun belt. He grabbed Joe’s smaller, brown hat, and placed it on his head whilst the boy was still talking.

“You don’t do it right, Adam,” Joe complained. “You always do the cinch up too tight, and Cochise doesn’t like it. I have to stop and loosen it for her, before she starts showing me how unhappy she can be.”

The boy was continuing to provide his list of what Adam didn’t do correctly as the two brothers exited the front door. Crossing the yard, they were mindful of trying to avoid the worst patches of sticky, drying mud.

______________________________________________________________________________

The wagon loaded up with tools and water canteens and some apples, biscuits and sandwiches courtesy of Hop Sing’s kitchen, shuddering its way along the roadway. Three men followed on either side with their horses, another driving the cumbersome buckboard. Seven in total. Joe and Adam followed behind on their own horses.

Once Cochise had been saddled and they had started out, Joe had gone very quiet, not instigating any conversation with his brother as they rode side by side. Adam was watching him carefully enough from beneath the front of his black hat, but couldn’t identify a reason. The boy had shared a few quite words with his mount, and plenty of friendly pats, but nothing else.

“Must be nice to be outside in the sunshine this afternoon, instead of being stuck behind four walls,” Adam commented, waiting to see if he could strike up some casual small talk. When he looked in on Joe this morning, he had promised himself to spend from time with this brother. The way it was happening wasn’t quite the way he had planned out, but would suffice for now.

“It is really nice out here today,” Joe remarked. “Thanks for inviting me to come along, Adam.”

“No problem at all,” Adam replied, but Joe was content enough to be looking about. “Your job out here today is to hand out the tools to the men. And make sure that they bring them back when we are ready to start towards home again.”

A few of the men in the group could be heard snickering together at the length of the leash that Adam placed around his brother in the way of restrictions. But one decisive and disapproving look from Adam had them falling silent. He had known these men for a number of years, and didn’t suspect any of them were responsible for taunting Joe when he was on his own. They were running out of time and had no time for any shenanigans.

To his credit, Joe had nodded his head at Adam’s instructions, and merely pulled his hat down over his ears, ignoring the men as best he could. On a different day, he might have said something back at them, but this afternoon he couldn’t be bothered. Instead he quickened his horse’s pace around the wagon and away from them.

Adam was proud to see that his brother didn’t rise to the bait, and pleased to see a little maturity guiding his reaction.

Ten miles from the Ponderosa homestead, the wagon was pulled up underneath a thicket of shady trees. They followed on for quite some distance, and it was the perfect place to rest the horses whilst the hard labour part of the roadwork was carried out. Shovels and a lot of bending over at the waist were needed to compact the places where the ruts were deepest.

Two and a half hours the men worked, with only one short break to take a drink from the canteens. Joe had eaten two apples, and handed out the other treats to the men. Refilling the canteens would have to wait until he could use the water back at the house. There wasn’t any stream running through this section of road.

Although the work was hard, Adam was pleased with the men and the amount of work that had been achieved in that short time. Surveying the section they had completed, he may need to ride further towards town tomorrow and identify any other bad patches.

Joe had carried out his task as his brother had requested. There was one shovel left and he had started working on one of the smaller areas of road. Adam had seen him put the shovel down and discreetly begin rubbing at his sore right arm after only a few minutes. He walked over to the boy and placed a firm but gentle hand around his upper good arm, and lead him back to the wagon, emphasising him to stay put.

“What did we discuss, little brother?” Adam warned. “Couldn’t help it could you, just had to test out the limitations I set, didn’t you?” he asked with annoyance. The task probably wasn’t the most glamorous job to be handed out. He was trying to keep the doctor’s words in the back of his mind, and give Joe something to do where he could feel like he was helping.

Joe had provided him with a suitably chastised expression, “Yeah, I suppose I did,” he answered dropping his head down, not wanting his brother to berate him like a five year old in front of the other men. To be fair though, that was probably what he deserved. “I am sorry. I wasn’t thinking about the consequences,” said in genuine apology.

If word got back to Pa, he could expect to be on the receiving end of a lecture, laced with disappointment that he had already tried to push the boundaries. Some other form of punishment could have been headed his way with more even time being spent inside.

“Apology accepted. For now, I am willing to keep your disregard of my instructions between you and me,” Adam offered in negotiation. “In return, I expect you to do as you are told until we return home. Understand? We are supposed to be working together, Joe, not against each other. That is what you asked of me six months ago, remember.”

“I do remember, and want us to do that, Adam. I promise,” Joe said with conviction.

Over the past twelve months, Joe and Adam had their fair share of differences of opinion. Their tempers and unwillingness to compromise for each others feelings and point-of-views had boiled over. Spiteful words had been exchanged in the heat of the moment that couldn’t be taken back. Insults had been shouted in hostility and out of anger that couldn’t be unsaid.

Both of them had made an unbreakable pact and agreed to act more like brothers to each other. That bond was unique and special and wasn’t just because they shared the same last name and a father. They were not acquaintances, bitter rivals or strangers passing in the street.

Joe knew that Adam had taught him a lot of new things during that time, and he was grateful. The best skills he had learned were intangible, and couldn’t be bought or paid for with money, silver or gold. They were family, and that had to count for something that couldn’t be measured.

Adam could admit to Joe reminding him of some important lessons as well, and he was thankful. The things that really mattered in life could slip and easily fall through your fingers with an unkind or hurtful word. Their relationship could be shattered beyond the ability of ever getting it back or having the chance to make amends.

Adam looped an arm around his brother’s shoulders. “Come on then, let’s get this wagon loaded back up with the tools and head home to supper.”

__________________________________________________________________________

That evening, the family settled around the table to a generous supper from Hop Sing, complete with apple pie for dessert. He had managed to save enough pastry and filling from falling to the floor to make two large pies. The top of the pastry was golden and crisp. Hoss could smell them in the kitchen the whole time he had been eating his main meal.

The topic of conversation changed a number of times, as Hoss shared his triumphs and misfortunes with mud and fences. Adam gave his father a detailed report on the roadwork repair from the men. He made mention of having to travel further on the road tomorrow to check more areas. Ben had told Hoss about the doctor’s visit and his decision about Joe returning to school tomorrow.

Ben and Adam both exchanged glances across the dining room table with the lack of chatter coming from Joe. The boy had been noticeably quiet and his lack of interest had definitely drawn a raised eyebrow of curiosity.

Adam told Ben that the road was now safe enough for Joe to travel on for school in the morning. In addition to those remarks, he also suggested that it might be a good idea if somebody rode with him as a precaution.

Hoss had expected to see his youngest brother’s temper flair at the very idea of someone needing to ride with him. A journey he had taken back and forth to school on his own on many occasions. A small amount of independence that had been hard fought and won from his father at the beginning of the school year.

Much to the surprise of everyone seated at the table, only a token comment was made, with virtually no emotion involved.

“I will be fine, Pa,” Joe simple stated rather than giving a sustained and vocal objection. “I don’t need anybody to come with me.” He then proceeded to move the food on his plate around some more.

Watching on for another few minutes, Ben could no longer hold back and wanted to address what was unfolding before him, “Joseph, are you going to continue to play with your food or are you going to eat some, please?”

Joe looked up at his father, and then over at each of his brothers in turn, before glancing down at the plate again. He laid the cutlery together, “No, I guess I am not. May I be excused, Pa?” and got up from the table and walked over to the settee before receiving an answer.

Ben waited for Adam and Hoss to provide an explanation, but received only a shrug of the shoulders from one, and a confused expression from the other. They didn’t have a reason to offer for Joe’s mood. Adam had only been talking fifteen minutes earlier about how his brother had enjoyed being outside riding on Cochise that afternoon.

“I think your brother can be trusted enough to be sensible and ride on his own in the morning, son,” Ben proclaimed. He wasn’t sure if Joe had heard his response to Adam’s suggestion.

What he hadn’t told any of his son’s yet was that he was planning on accompanying Joe, and ensuring that he rode home safely in the afternoon. There were a number of business errands that needed his personal attention, and he planned to be in Virginia City until well after lunch.

After supper, Hoss offered to play three rounds of checkers with his brother. He had enjoyed the apple pie immensely. Hop Sing had offered a keep a slice for Joe when he was ready to eat it. Adam and his father were enjoying a small brandy in front of the fireplace and talking quietly to each other.

Half way through the first game, Hoss had been the first one to notice that Joe wasn’t playing with any enthusiasm. He was barely watching the movements on the board.

With a smirk upon his face, the large man watched as Joe’s eyelids slowly closed to half-mast and then open again. The boy was sitting up, but his posture was beginning to sag and relax.

Now they had half a reason for his pliant etiquette at the dinner table. And probably why he hadn’t felt like eating very much. The short nap before lunch had not bolstered or done much to sustain his energy levels. The ride in the afternoon had used up the last of his reserves that he had been surviving on for the majority of the day. Joe was tired.

“Hey, Pa, take a look,” Hoss quietly, waiting for his father to turn in his chair and take notice of Little Joe for himself. His brother wasn’t going to make it to the end of one game, let alone three.

“Somebody is fading fast,” Adam whispered as he watched his brother fight to the very end with steadfast tenacity. How many times had they all seen that before? Countless would a close estimate. The current time was much earlier than other school nights.

Tonight, the normal battle of wills between father and son over going to bed didn’t look like it would eventuate. On previous nights, Joe would grumble and glance over at the grandfather clock and point out that it was half an hour earlier than the last time. A quick look at this father’s stern, determined face and the boy knew better than to continue challenging his authority.

Ben got up from his blue arm chair, and walked over to the end of settee that his son was currently occupying. The eyelids drooped again as he watched, and was followed by an expansive yawn. As Joe used his hand to cover his mouth, he noted his father standing beside him.

“Hi, Pa,” he said, giving a small smile.

Returning the smile, and resting a hand on his shoulder, “Joe, I think you should be thinking about heading up to bed,” Ben suggested. “You had a very early start and a long day tomorrow.”

For a brief moment, old habits tried to surface, and the words of protest formed on his lips. But they disappeared just as quickly, as Joe took stock of how much his arm was hurting and how sluggish he honestly felt. He wasn’t about to admit to either out loud.

Joe nodded his head, “Sorry, Hoss, I will finish the game with you another time.” He stood up and stretched, trying to loosen the muscles across his shoulders.

“No problem, short shanks, there will be plenty of other nights to follow,” Hoss replied.

The family were unaware how much the hand of fate would step in and change all their lives. Quite some time would pass by, before the two brothers would be able to enjoy a simple game of checkers.

“Good Night, Pa,” Joe said tiredly, rubbing at his face. That only accentuated his fatigue even more.

“Sleep well, son, and pleasant dreams,” Ben replied.

Joe crossed the wooden floor, but then held onto the bannister as he turned and bid goodnight to both older brothers. Adam and Hoss returned the sentiments and watched as he ascended the staircase.

Several hours later, Ben was ready to retire to his own bed for the night. Hoss had already headed upstairs an hour ago. Adam was still downstairs, quietly reading by the fireplace. Before going to his own room to rest for the night, he wanted to make one final check on Joe first.

Quietly entering the room, he was pleased to see that Joe had taken the time to change into sleeping attire tonight. Tonight the covers were undisturbed and mostly in place. Joe’s slumber must been deep enough to prevent him tossing and turning too much in the bed. The lamp on the bedside table was burning very low. The dim light bathing Joe’s peaceful face in a soft, warm hue.

Ben couldn’t help but feel a lump rise in his throat as he watched his youngest son sleep. There were times such as this, when the words to express how much he loved the boy just wouldn’t come. He gently stroked the smooth skin on the boy’s cheek before extinguishing the flame of the lamp and then closing the door as he left the room.

__________________________________________________________________________________

The next morning was Thursday, and Hoss found himself falling back into a familiar routine; needing to wake Joe so that he could get ready in time for school. Ben was also hoping that his son would eat some breakfast today before leaving. Joe had not eaten a whole lot for supper. Hop Sing would send along a good lunch, but there was no guarantee that he would eat at school either.

Hoss came back down the stairs a lot quicker this morning, and saw the curious expression on the faces at the table. There had been no raised voices or shouting coming from Joe about having to get up early.

“Joe says won’t be long, Pa,” Hoss reported. “Woke up in a better mood today too,” he added, thankful that he hadn’t needed to strong-arm his brother into doing what was required.

“That is good news to hear, Hoss,” Ben commented, and then picked up his cup of coffee. Today may actually turn out to be a good and productive day for them all.

While the three men shared breakfast around the table, Adam brought up a fresh topic of discussion while they waited for Joe to make an appearance.

“I could be mistaken, but I thought there were a few unusual noises outside last night,” Adam remarked. “When the sky is still too dark for anything but shadows. Less than half an hour before dawn and it sounded like though it was coming from the barn. I couldn’t see any lights and there was no further disturbance afterwards that woke me up again.”

Ben put down his cup, and had a puzzled look on his face as he listened. “I got up and checked the yard from my own window as well,” he confirmed. “The horses in the barn were quiet from what I could hear, and they usually alert us if something is out of order. Charlie hasn’t come to tell me the hands heard anything from the bunk house.”

“I didn’t hear a peep from anything all night,” Hoss said, before taking another mouthful of food.

“How could you possibly hear anything last night over that breathing that can only ever be describe as snoring, Hoss?” Adam countered.

“I am afraid Adam is right there, son,” Ben added. “I wish you wouldn’t sleep on your back quite so much. There have been a few nights where I have tried to roll you over to help the rest of the household get some decent sleep. Luckily you didn’t wake your younger brother.”

The sound of footsteps on the stairs had them looking up and smiling as that very person in question made his way down to the table.

“Good morning, Joseph,” Ben said cheerfully. His son was fully dressed, with his shirt tucked in neatly, and already wearing his boots. A comb had been used on his hair, and from all angles, he appeared ready for school and was carrying his small bundle of books. They would be placed in his saddle bags just before he mounted Cochise.

“Good morning, Pa and brothers,” Joe answered politely. His greeting lacked any real enthusiasm, but he didn’t look troubled or concerned about anything from the expression on his face. The books were set aside on the end of the credenza so he wouldn’t forget them.

“I suspect you will be pleased to be at school today,” Adam said after exchanging morning pleasantries. “How is your arm feeling this morning?”

“Stiff like yesterday, and hurts when I move it too much,” Joe answered truthfully. “A good thing that I write with my left hand. I will be careful like the doctor said. I don’t want anything knocking against it and causing the stitches to bleed.”

“Hop Sing made extra for you today, Joe,” Hoss proclaimed. In truth, he had been spotted trying to take a small portion of his brother’s ample breakfast. His large hand had been smacked away with the back of a metal spoon by the diminutive cook.

Joe walked to the doorway of the kitchen, “Hop Sing, did you pack a lunch for me today?”

Hop Sing came into the dining room, handing him a small paper pouch, “Joe eat good today.”

“Thank you,” he said, accepting the bag. “Pa, I won’t have time for breakfast this morning. I am going to be late if I don’t leave very soon.”

“Joe, I really don’t like you leaving in a rush like this in the morning, and heading off to school without anything in your stomach,” Ben commented with concern. “There are a few hours yet before you will even get the chance to eat.”

At the dining room table, a friendly tussle had ensued between Hoss and Hop Sing over claiming Joe’s uneaten breakfast. The larger man was determined that food wasn’t going to waste. And the chef was making sure that Hoss wouldn’t steal a single extra morsel.

Adam watched in silence, not wanting to get involved, but used the cup in his hand to hide his mirth at the dispute.

In the end, it was Joe who had inadvertently ended the war, “Hop Sing, let Hoss have it if he wants. I don’t mind.”

“Bless you little brother,” Hoss declared, and was quickly munching away on the spoils. There hadn’t been much on Joe’s plate for him in the first place, Hoss justified.

Hop Sing had relented at Joe’s request, but saved his best scowl for Hoss before he stomped back into the kitchen.

“Sorry I didn’t mean to take so long getting ready upstairs. I will eat today,” Joe promised his father. “I have to ask Charlie to saddle Cochise for me yet when I get out to the barn.”

Ben was pleased to hear that Joe remembered about getting someone else to lift his saddle, but not entirely happy about him riding out without eating first. Looking at the time though, Joe was probably right. The ride into Virginia City may be slower this morning due to the road.

Miss Summers may be willing to accept a good reason for lateness, but Miss Jones would not. The family would be right back where they were before yesterday, with Joe getting berated by the headmistress and losing interest in attending school.

Standing at the front door, he handed his son the blue jacket. “Ride carefully today, Joseph, and I will see you this afternoon.”

Joe picked up his hat and looked back over his shoulder as he stood on the verandah “Bye Pa,” he said, waving and giving a warm smile.

……and like the checker game, neither of them could have predicted what was about to come next.

_______________________________________________________________________________

“Morning, Charlie,” Joe said as he entered the barn, but his face lit up with a grin as the foreman led his freshly saddled horse over to him.

“Thought you could be needin’ her this morning, Joe,” Charlie returned with a friendly smirk. “She has been waiting for you to come out from the house. Would barely stand still long enough for me to saddle her.”

Joe tucked the bag of lunch from Hop Sing into the right saddlebag and after buckling up the strap, accepted the reins from the foreman.

“Thank you,” he said and mounted. “I will need to give her a good brushing when I get back from school this afternoon.”

The boy was about to encourage his horse to move forward, when a voice called out to him at the last minute.

“You forgot these, Joe,” Adam said, handing over the bundle of books that Joe had left behind inside the house.

“I put them there so I wouldn’t forget them,” Joe said sheepishly with a laugh, as Adam slipped them into the left-hand saddlebag.

“Hoss and I should be both working around here in the yard when you get back later this afternoon,” Adam told him. “Please be careful on that road, you saw some of the rough spots for yourself.”

“Thanks, I will be,” echoed back as Joe gave a wave in acknowledgement before riding out of the barn towards Virginia City.

Adam watched until he could no longer see his brother. He returned to the house to finish his morning routine. There was plenty on the agenda for them all to do today.

__________________________________________________________________________________________

The sunshine on Joe’s back was warm, with a gentle breeze blowing away from his face. The collar of his jacket flapped about, but the hat on top of his head stayed securely in place. For whatever unknown reason, he heeded the warning from Adam and the promise he had made to his father about riding a little more carefully along the road.

At the halfway point between the Ponderosa and Virginia City, the road curved around a little wider. The thicket of trees that the horses had rested beneath yesterday afternoon, continued even this far out.

Butch Thomas had settled himself in a secluded spot behind one of the larger trees. Robert Pierce was standing behind another larger bank of trees. He would lie in wait and make his move in with the ambush, when the signal was made. Danny Griffiths had been given the task of being the bait for the young Cartwright boy.

After he had sobered up from last night’s heavy drinking session, any apprehensions Frank Richards had about his involvement in Thomas’ plan had evaporated at the mention of money. If something was going to happen to the youngest Cartwright, then he wanted his fair share of the booty. He had provided Thomas enough clues about the movements of the family at the ranch on a typical morning.

The kid might be nice enough, Richards reminded himself. But living with those other Cartwright’s, there was no doubt in his mind that it wouldn’t belong before that would change. Sooner or later, the boy would be looking down his nose at other people, just like he had seen his father and brothers do. Frank came around to Butch’s way of thinking and saw the benefits of using young Joe to teach the other family members a harsh lesson.

When asked a few months later, Joe wouldn’t be able to provide a satisfactory answer to the question about why he hadn’t raced to school on his horse. There were a lot of things about that day which would remain in his memory for a long time to come. There were a few details about that particular morning that he would never forget.

Cochise reacted to the smell of another horse in the vicinity, and returned a greeting of her own.

Approaching the bend in the road, Joe slowed his horse down to a walk, “Where are they Cooch? he asked, looking around and expecting to see a horse somewhere. He pushed the front of his brown hat back a little and scratched his forehead with confusion. Twisting and turning, but remaining seated in the saddle.

There was nothing. Joe started thinking that he was hearing things that were not really there, but Cochise gave another whinny at the unseen horse. He may have been losing his marbles, but he had endless faith in his best friend. Her sense of smell was much better than his own and he trusted her judgment.

Urging Cochise to increase her speed again, they hadn’t travelled much further when Joe came upon a peculiar site in the middle of the roadway. “Stop here,” Joe uttered softly to the horse, carding a gentle hand through her mane. The horse did stop, but he could feel her legs moving around with nervousness. A man was laying in the middle of the road.

Who he was, Joe didn’t know. Looking around at the trees in all directions again, he was trying to find signs of the man’s horse. The mount that belonged to this person could be the one Cochise had been reacting to. However, there was no sign of another horse, mule or animal of any kind. Maybe the man had accidentally fallen off or been thrown and was injured? From this distance, it wasn’t so easy to tell. The man wasn’t moving at all.

Should he head towards Virginia City and find the doctor? Or should he race back to the Ponderosa and get his father or one of his brother to bring a wagon out here? Maybe the first thing to do before any of that was to find out how badly he was hurt. He wasn’t the kind of person who rode away and wouldn’t offer any help; leave someone laying there if they were still alive.

Over in the thicket of trees, the two figures of Thomas and Richards watched the dark-haired young man stop his horse and dismount. They could see the boy craning his neck, trying to see if the unfortunate soul on the road was moving yet or not. Whether he sensed something being out of place, they couldn’t be sure. Even if that was the case, it was too late to stop the plan being put into full swing now.

______________________________________________________________________________

Joe released the reins of his horse, motioning with his hand on her nose to stay where she was. Walking the short distance, he kept his eyes on the man, trying to listen for any sound. Little Joe wasn’t quite sure what his reaction would be if the man was already dead.

“Hey mister, are you alright?” he asked, bending down and placing his hand on the man’s shoulder. He was startled and found himself falling backwards when the man did move. His eyes were drawn to the menacing barrel of a pistol as Danny Griffiths’ rolled over and pulled himself up into a seated position.

“I am just fine, thanks for asking,” came the reply. The man wasn’t hurt or dead. This was all some kind of trick to get somebody to stop. Unfortunately Joe had come along and found that he was that ‘somebody’ without knowing that he was the intended target. He didn’t have any money on him, and he wasn’t carrying anything of significant value.

For a split second, Joe thought he recognized the man, but he couldn’t remember where or when. He didn’t have time to stop and think about the answer at the moment.

Joe had no gun with him or any other way of defending himself, except his fists, and he didn’t know if he could deliver a hard enough punch to the man that would aid in his escape. His injured right arm was hurting after he extended both hands as he crashed awkwardly to the ground.

Keeping his eyes fixated nervously on the gun pointed at him, he made an effort to talk his way out of the predicament he found himself embroiled in. Maybe he could buy himself time if nothing else. “Look, I just stopped to make sure you weren’t injured or sick. I don’t want any trouble.”

“Don’t seem like this is your lucky day,” Griffiths stated, smirking with a cruel grin, pulling himself up into a standing position, whilst pointing the gun at Joe. He used the fingers on his opposite hand to let out a loud whistle. Joe turned his head, and was alarmed to see two much larger men, emerging from behind the trees and making their towards him.

Frank Richards was set up as the look out to make sure their activities went unnoticed, and came into view as a fourth man. He was still mounted on a horse.

The adrenaline in Joe’s muscles began firing, and his mind was shouting at him to run. He didn’t know who any of these men were or what they wanted. With a gun being waved in his direction, he doubted they wanted to make friends or share the sugar cookies in his lunch bag. The two men were exiting the tree line, and first man holding the gun was distracted momentarily, watching them approach.

Quickly scrambling to his feet, Joe started to take off at a fast run in the opposite direction. His goal was to make it back to Cochise. Mounting his horse, he could be far enough away from these unknown assailants within a matter of seconds.

“Griffiths, you idiot, he is trying to make a run for it. Stop him!” Butch growled with anger. The task he had assigned had been so simple. Lay there and then hold onto the kid there until he and Pierce came out from the trees.

Thomas and Pierce saw the boy trying to make a run for his horse and immediately split up and pursued him. They couldn’t afford for him to get away now.

This far away from home or Virginia City, Joe knew the chance for any of his shouts for help being heard were slim, but he had to try something. Maybe someone else would come along the road towards the ranch and he would be able to gain their assistance.

“Keep away from me. Leave me alone!” Joe shouted in panic, as he tried to quicken his pace. “Somebody help me, please!”

Due to the state of the road, an unseen rock would be his downfall, as he tripped and lost his footing, allowing the three men chasing him to quickly catch up. Joe landed painfully on his knees, and the fabric of his tan trousers was torn open. The skinned knees were stinging, but he tried to get back on his feet again in desperation. Two pairs of rough hands grabbed him from behind, lifting him up and dragging him backwards away from his horse.

“No! Please help! Let me go!” he screamed out a second time, this time louder.

Robert Pierce cut off the boy’s pleas for help, placing his calloused hand over the boy’s mouth and clamping down tightly. The kid was fighting against them as hard as he could. Joe was yelling through the hand as best he could, but his throat was too dry and his cries were being muffled and choked off.

“Danny, do something useful. Don’t just stand there!” Pierce yelled out gruffly. “He don’t weigh next to nothing, but I only have one hand free to move him, while I keep him quiet. We need to get him off this roadway and out of sight behind those trees before someone comes along and sees.”

Once satisfied that the two men were holding the boy in their hands, Thomas walked further towards Cochise, snatching her reins and leading the horse to the tree line. Like her owner, the pinto was shying away from the unfamiliar rough handling and being difficult as well.

Joe continued to struggle against his attackers, kicking and fighting, trying to get free of their grip. His right arm felt like it as on fire, but he doubled his efforts. The two men were too strong and no matter how hard he fought, their hold around his chest tightened like a vice. The hand over his mouth remained firmly in place and Joe was having to draw enough air through his nose into his starving lungs.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Cochise giving one of the men a difficult time in tethering her reins to a low branch. Even though he hadn’t been able to make it back to her, his horse was much stronger. Maybe she could find a way to break free and his animal friend could find a way to help him.

Little Joe felt himself being slammed roughly against the trunk of a large tree, and a glancing blow to the temple, knocked his hat off onto the ground. His throat was burning, and his voice was becoming raspy. He didn’t know if he could shout any louder, but tried one more time.

“Shut him up,” Butch ordered bluntly, as he started to get impatient with the stubborn horse.

With Pierce still keeping the boy quiet and holding him against the tree trunk, Griffiths untied the bandana around his neck. He made sure that the boy was watching as he held it out tautly between his hands. There was no way of mistaking what his intentions were. Joe swallowed the lump of fear lodged at the base of his throat.

Danny nodded curtly to Pierce, signaling for him to remove his hand briefly. Joe didn’t waste the opportunity, and as soon as the hand released from around his mouth, he drew in deep breath. He started to scream for help again, but was quickly silenced by a savage slap across his face that was brutal and stung from the ferocity.

The voice that spoke to him was cold and hard. The man deliberately blew a mouth full of smoke directly into Joe’s face. The smell was nauseating. He tried to turn his head away, but Pierce grabbed a hand full of his curly hair, and forced him to face forward.

Joe looked up at the face that loomed in front of him, feeling tears welling up in his eyes, but gritted his teeth and refused to let them fall.

“You will receive much worse than that, if you scream again,” the man promised. His voice was low and dangerous as he spoke, and something about it made Joe shudder inside and take note of what was being said to him.

“Open your mouth, you little bastard,” Griffiths shouted. Pierce yanked on the kid’s hair again, causing him to cry out.

Danny pounced and shoved the wad of fabric roughly into his mouth. He pulled his head to the side and knotted the ends behind his head to secure. The makeshift gag was very tight and the fabric was digging into the soft corners of his mouth. The cords of his neck were straining as Joe attempted to move and twist his head, groaning at the pain, but he was ignored as the discomfort continued to grow.

“Nobody will be able to hear you now, kid,” Danny taunted, as he pulled out a length of course rope. “Now to make sure you can’t run away anymore.”

Joe could feel the rope being looped around his ankles. The man tying him up was right. There was no way he could run anywhere. He was trapped.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Pierce was growing a little uncomfortable with the length of time this was taking, and the disorganisation. Someone could come along here any minute, whether the boy was bound and gagged or not. Whether Richards was watching as look out or not.

“How are we gonna get him away from here now, Thomas?” he asked. “This wasn’t very smooth at all. We have to ride out of here.”

Thomas turned away from his captive and faced his accomplice, “You just leave the thinking to me. I already have this all figured out. It was Griffiths there that stuffed up, but it won’t matter none now anyway.”

“I agree, we do have to get out of here quickly. You two make sure that the horses are saddled and ready to go as soon as I give the word to leave,” he instructed. “Somebody might come along here, but we will be long gone before that happens. There are a few things that need to be taken care of first.”

Butch made sure that he was looking at Joe when he made his next statement, “Young Mister Cartwright here isn’t going nowhere, unless I say so,” he added ominously.

Joe heard the man address him by his family name. These men were strangers to him, but somehow they knew his name. What other things did they know about him? What were they wanting with him? Was the rest of his family at risk of being hurt? He had no way of warning them.

“Remove your jacket,” Thomas demanded.

Joe didn’t understand what the man wanted it for and gave a puzzled expression in return.

Thomas reached down in to his boot, and slowly dragged out a small doubled-sided blade. He made sure that Joe was watching his every move, and understood that the threat of using the knife was real enough. “You either take it off, or I will cut it from your body, myself. Your choice!”

Pierce released his grip enough to move, and Joe used a trembling arm to start sliding his arm out of the sleeve of his jacket. He knew he had no choice, but he didn’t understand why they were confiscating it. He took a little more time with his right arm, and it was almost out when Thomas grew impatient and tore it down his arm. Three sets of eyes were drawn to the white bandage encircling the boy’s arm.

“Well, what do we have here,” Thomas said with a chuckle, running the tip of the blade over the white fabric in torment. “This must be the claw marks that your brother was talking to that quack of a doctor about in Virginia City.”

Joe’s expression said it all. How did this man know about his arm being injured in that fashion, and about Doctor Martin. And most of all, about Adam. He didn’t want these men threatening his family and friends too.

Thomas could see the the curious looks from Pierce and Griffiths as well, and decided to elaborate a little more. “Oh yes, we are in the company of a lad here who took on a bear, and won. He got away with this as a souvenir.” The man had omitted further details about the bear being a cub. The smaller claws had done enough damage.

Butch used the sharp blade to slice through the linen bandage, revealing the neat rows of stitches. Joe had squeezed his eyes closed as he felt the metal against his skin. He was fearful that the man would cut open the new stitches themselves. The bandage fell to the ground, but was already stained with dried blood.

The breeze blowing beneath the trees was now gusty, and had dropped the temperature outside by a few degrees. Joe felt his body shiver involuntarily, but the change in weather wasn’t the only cause. These men that were holding him were ruthless and would use any method to achieve their wicked intentions.

The two men could see that Thomas was taunting the boy and driving his obedience by using fear and intimidation. “We will have to be on our toes now,” Griffiths said with a laugh.

Although Joe was scared about his fate with these men, his anger began to surface at his forced captivity. His body was hurting, and he was trussed up with no way of escaping. He stared back at Thomas with defiance in his green eyes.

Butch watched the sudden change with interest. The boy had shown fear, but now he was attempting to challenge his authority. “Well now, do I see a spark of rebellion?”

Thomas stared intently back, “You listen and heed me well boy,” he said with a foreboding tone. “I can see the questions that you want to ask written across your face. Who we are and what he are going to do with you.”

“Don’t ask too many questions, and you might live through this. You will get told what I want you to know, no more, no less,” he gave in explanation. “For now we want your Pa and brothers to sit up and take note. After they do what we tell them to do, you might be allowed to return to them.”

Somehow the words sounded very disingenuous to Joe, as he looked at the features of his captors worn faces. They hardly looked like the type of men who kept their word to anyone.

The sunlight caught the edge of the blade that Thomas was still holding. “Hold out his right arm.”

Joe fought against Pierce again and tried to keep his arm tucked into his side, but a swift punch to his unprotected stomach, made him gasp out loud and bend over at the waist. Pierce was able to extend his arm out in front of him, and use the bulk of his weight to push Joe back more against the trunk of the tree.

“You may feel this just a touch,” Butch warned with a cruel laugh. Using the tip of the sharp knife, he started at the inside of Joe’s elbow, and dragged the edge along the soft underside of his arm. Joe shrieked and wreathed in pain through the gag with fresh tears welling in his eyes and then running down his face. The cut was shallow enough that it wouldn’t require stitching, but it had definitely hurt a lot. Blood was welling along the length of the wound. A few droplets had fallen off his arm onto the leaves scattered at the base of the tree and their feet.

Pierce had strengthened his grip around the boy’s waist, feeling his knees begin to weaken. The boy had clenched his teeth and was using all of his energy reserves to fight against the onslaught of light-headedness.

Joe was only able to take in part of the conversation from Butch about the reason behind cutting his arm, and taking his jacket. “You see, I need to prove to your family that you are still alive,” he commented casually, taking the blue jacket and proceeding to run it across the fresh blood, allowing it to soak into the fabric. “Proof of life I think they have called it in other places.”

“There, that will do nicely,” Thomas declared, holding the jacket up to see that the front had been sufficiently stained red in a number of places. “I have to provide the right incentive for your family to do what they are told.”

Thomas now agreed that they had stayed in the one place far too long, and they needed to complete the final part of their plan for leaving. He looked at the boy, and could see that he was much more docile and pliant. The knife wound and jacket stunt may have been a little over the top, but it was mostly for show. Not only would it make the boy comply, it would ensure that the Cartwright family, all of them understood that he meant business.

“Now my little friend, it is time for you to go to sleep for a while,” Thomas declared, pulling out a brown bottle and a coloured handkerchief from his pocket. “And when you

wake up, you will be in a nice new place far away from here. Now hold still a minute, because this stuff doesn’t always work instantly and takes a minute to take effect.”

As soon as the cap had been removed from the bottle and the cloth had been soaked liberally in the liquid, the pungent smell was unmistakeable. Ether

Even though Joe was only fifteen years old, he had learnt enough from Doc Martin over the years to know what the stuff was used for on people. And he knew what the outcome would be for him. Little Joe became even more afraid for his life and started to struggle against his captors again.

Joe gave one final burst of energy that he could muster to fight with and use to get away. Using both bound feet, he kicked out awkwardly at an unsuspecting Griffiths. His efforts were rewarded when Danny howled out loudly with discomfort and anger. The attacker reached down, grabbing at his foot where the boy’s feet had made contact.

Griffiths was clearly very unhappy, and riled enough to want to extract an immediate chunk of pain and retribution from his younger assailant.

Thomas had let go a laugh at the boy’s brazenness. “Don’t worry about that now, you can get your payback against him later. He got you fair and square. Gather up his hat from down there, and take this jacket over to his horse.”

Turning back to Joe, “You have some grit about you boy, but for now that won’t do you any good,” he chuckled as he slowly started descending the cloth towards his face.

Joe tried to turn his head in the opposite direction, away from the cloth in and attempt to avoid the intoxicating fumes. Pierce grabbed another handful of Joe’s curly hair forcibly, and pushed his face closer. He could hear the three men laughing with relish at his plight and misery.

Despite the gag still being in position, Thomas held the cloth over Little Joe’s mouth and nose. He bucked his hips and upper body forward, but he had no strength left to give, and his efforts to resist were futile. His groans of pain and cries for help were muffled and barely audible for anybody to hear him.

For a few seconds, Joe had tried holding his breath, but with only being able to breathe through his nose, his attempts failed. He was forced to released the air in his burning lungs and the sweet smelling aroma began invading his nostrils and sinuses. Joe could feel his head starting to swim very badly and he was feeling dizzy and light-headed. He was trying to keep a coherent thought and tell himself that he couldn’t afford to fall asleep in the hands of these men. They were going to take him away from his home and family.

Thomas became impatient with the length of time that the stuff was taking to work and pressed the cloth even firmer against the boy’s mouth and nose. It wasn’t much longer that Pierce began to feel the kid’s desperate struggles become weaker and weaker. Another few moments and they ceased entirely and he felt Joe’s knees buckle and his body go completely limp. He had to adjust his hold around the boy’s waist to prevent him collapsing to the ground.

Joe was now unconscious and totally unaware of what was happening to him. Butch held the cloth in place for another minute before removing it. From previous usage, he knew that the liquid was potent, but it only worked for relatively short periods of time. Recapping the bottle and placing it back in his pocket, he folded the cloth over. He tucked it in the same pocket, wanting to prevent and minimise any risk of being overcome by the fumes. It may be necessary to dose the kid again before they reached their final destination.

Once he had sobered up enough, Richards told them about a line shack he had learned about on Ponderosa land from living with the other hands in the bunkhouse. One that was located further out than the others but was usually kept well stocked up during winter. They could go there, some distance away and the Cartwright family wouldn’t think to look for the missing boy there. They would be able to keep him there as a prisoner until the bid for the timber contract had been withdrawn. After that, the boy wouldn’t be released until a substantial amount of ransom money had been delivered into their hands.

The ride to the shack from the road they were on was about four hours and Thomas had no idea how long the boy would be asleep. The boy’s eyes were closed and his face had slackened, but he slapped Joe across the side of his face with an open hand twice to ensure he was unconscious.

Joe was deeply under the effects and didn’t make a sound or stir at the slaps. Butch removed the bandana from around his own neck, and tied it securely over Joe’s eyes as a blindfold.

“Get a piece of string and start tying his hands together,” Thomas instructed Griffiths. “Then drag him over towards the front of my horse.”

Joe never felt his wrists being held tightly and bound with tough fibrous string in front of him. The man failed to notice the discarded and blood stained bandage that had landed at the base of the tree.

Together, Pierce and Griffiths carried the limp figure between them over to a large grey mount. Thomas was seated astride his horse, and the two men tied the boy face down in front of him. He would be able to detect if the boy was waking up or trying to get loose at any stage of the journey. A blanket was placed over the top of Joe and there was no possibility of him being seen by anybody.

“Make sure that you attach that ransom note I prepared onto his saddle so there is no chance of being lost to the breeze. Leave the hat and the jacket where they won’t be missed.”

Pierce was mounted and ready to leave whilst Griffiths carried out the final instructions. The rolled up piece of paper was tucked underneath the front of the saddle, where it couldn’t be shaken loose by the horse.

Cochise made a noise of displeasure, not liking the stranger being so close to her again. Looking at the nice leather saddle bags, Danny made a last minute decision to pilfer them for himself as a souvenir. Griffiths detached them and they were quickly removed from the horse. Chances were in his favour, and the boy wasn’t going to be needing them again anyway.

Frank Richards rejoined the others as they rode out from beneath the thicket of trees. Four men rode with speed down a different trail with their hostage, further and further away from the Ponderosa.

To be continued ……….

Author Notes – There are some clues in this chapter for other stories and plots. The scene where Adam is talking about six months ago and the words exchanged between Joe and Adam is a future story called Splintered.

The scenes mentioning Dan Toliver, are hinting at the rewrite of the episode “A Time To Step Down” that I intend to do a what happened instead story for “A Time To Step Up” that I intend set somewhat earlier than the original episode.

The mention of Joe’s ability to draw is something that I have created for stories before this one, and will come up again in those. It is one of the new arcs that I wanted to introduce, but there is more to be explained yet in detail. Some of that will happen in Dead Man’s Canyon. And the reasons why they are now stored in a wardrobe will be explained further in a future story Koda

The dime store novel thought from Ben, is a nod to the episode Joe Cartwright, Detective where I wanted to explore where his like of such reading material began. Another story to come in the future.

A new chapter for River Boat Gambler has already been started and progressing nicely. Hoping to update that soon.

Thank you for reading and I would love to hear what you think about the new additions.

Need to go back under the ocean now and complete the next chapter for that fandom and a few others.

Jules6

Chapter Four – Trees And Elves

ESCAPE THE DARKNESS

By JULES

Author Notes – This story was begun a very long time ago, and it was never my intentions to leave it unfinished. This first was first published in 2003. I have twelve (12) chapters written – but want to add more to them and edit where necessary.

I will be going back through and editing a few scenes and adding to a few and fixing errors, now that I hopefully understand the Middle Earth world a little better since I first began. I hope to add a sprinkling of “The Hobbit” details in certain places where is needed. There will be a heavier saturation of this time period during the Rivendell scenes.

Strong friendship only – no slash. Very little romance (I am no good at writing that) – And plenty of angst, hurt/comfort. For those don’t know my previous work – this won’t be the Disney version.

This will be a very very long story, with many chapters, and many of those being long as well – just the way I write. And I usually try and describe from the viewpoint of multiple characters for any one scene. As well as describe every rock, tree branch and blade of grass along the way.

I have a very complicated plot planned, and some may not agree how I have altered the course of things, or that I introduce them and Frodo differently than the books or films. Hopefully you will continue to follow and read as the story progresses. If it hasn’t happened yet, or there isn’t enough information about something yet, that is usually deliberate on my part. Sometimes there are subtle clues that I put in chapters, other times I don’t.

This story explores the idea about what might have happened if Strider had come to the Shire to forewarn Bilbo Baggins about the Ring Wraiths that would soon come hunting for the One Ring.

There are other changes that I will deliberately make to the story at a later date to explore how the journey may have changed as a result. “Hint, hint, some big changes that were the whole reason for starting this series”.

Strider had vowed to protect Bilbo when the Ring Wraiths are sent by the Dark Lord but he is unaware that the legacy of who is to carry the Ring to be destroyed falls upon a totally different Baggins.

Hoping to add a few funny, light-hearted moments in this one in between the serious stuff.

All mention of herbs or treatments used in this story or others come about from a little research I did into some and what their effects were. Some of them have been around since ancient times so I have no problem using in this time frame but still am not sure if they would have been grown near Rivendell.

Disclaimer -I do not own any of the characters I write about. I write about those created by J.J.R. Tolkien and marvel at such a story-tellers ability to enthral us all. There are occasional quotes from the movie in this story, just to keep the continuity going strong and to add just at the appropriate time.

Chapter Four: Trees And Elves

this new chapter follows on from the last one:

“Run!” was the suggestion that the two cousins said to each other with their eyes, a little afraid of being in the middle of both an angry Sam and a cross looking Frodo.

and now the story turns another page:

Merry and Pippin were very relieved that Strider was the one to save them both from the wrath of Samwise, and from incurring more than annoyed expressions from Gandalf and Bilbo.

They hadn’t meant to cause trouble or hit their unsuspecting cousin with the apple. Boredom often had the two of them inventing games together, without fully thinking of the consequences for other people or themselves. Both younger hobbits had been accused of taking their antics a little too far times back at Brandy Hall by the Master of Buckland and a host of other family members.

Frodo usually had endless amounts of patience and knew the best games for them all to play when at Brandy Hall. He often taught them other unique things apart from games, like animals and plants. Neither of them could remember a time when their cousin had turned them away or showed any selfish traits.

There were lots of stories and adventures he shared from Bilbo about his travels and all of the interesting and unusual folks that he encountered. Some of those lands sounded very strange indeed, and worlds away from the safety of the shire. He could also speak some of the foreign languages where those peoples came from.

Being able to spend time with their cousin Frodo was very infrequent since he had moved to Hobbiton and was now living with Bilbo. They missed him terribly, and were very excited to be present for celebrating not one birthday, but two. With each marking very different but equally admirable milestones. Frodo’s coming of age at thirty-three and leaving his childhood years behind. And Bilbo’s for reaching an age most hobbits would probably never achieve in their own lifetimes.

“Are you sure you are alright, Mister Frodo?” Sam asked, making sure that the apple had not struck hard enough to leave a mark.

“Yes thank you, Sam, I am completely fine,” Frodo relayed, getting off the couch and testifying that he bore no ill affects from the wayward piece of fruit. Frodo went into the kitchen about getting himself a cool drink of water.

Samwise had wanted to say something further to both of them, but knew it was not his place to chastise members of his Master’s family, even if they were much younger and at fault. He hoped that Bilbo would speak up instead, but it seemed that this afternoon he due to having a smail full of guests, he was prepared to be a little more forgiving. It was only an apple.

“Has you headache eased at all, Frodo lad?” Bilbo questioned, noting that being struck on the head by an object may have caused the discomfort to lengthen in duration.

“Actually it has, but only slightly most probably due to the shortness of my nap,” Frodo answered, giving at disapproving look towards his two younger cousins. “Just a little misunderstanding and poor aim I am sure,” he added.

Pippin’s face showed fear for the possibility of physically hurting his cousin. Merry’s expression came from being concerned about any impending punishment that may be looming for them both.

We are both very sorry, Frodo,” Pippin apologised, fidgeting with the buttons on the front of his vest. “We certainly didn’t mean to wake you up.”

Maybe if your aim had been better, Pip…….,” Merry started to say, only to stop any further comment at seeing a sterner look from both Frodo and Bilbo.

You are not intending to throw anything else around my home, Meriadoc?” Bilbo interrupted. “There has been enough of folk tossing food around in Bag-end the last time Balin and his dwarven friends were here. Otherwise I shall be wanting to speak to your father, Saradoc, and have him find a more suitable task to occupy your time whilst you are here.”

Sam gasped in surprise at the mention of dwarves. They very rarely were seen in the Shire, and even those stories of them being friends with Bilbo had changed over the years. Most residents in Hobbiton thought the eccentric hobbit had created the whole tale of them visiting him to ward off any would-be thieves from searching his home for lost treasure.

Next time, Pippin, let’s play a game outside, and include a ball, which you can throw around as much as you like,” Frodo suggested, wrapping a friendly arm around his cousin. The younger hobbit immediately brightened and gave a grin and a hug in return.

Bilbo smiled at Frodo’s ability to ease Pippin’s anxiousness and find something for them to do. Merry was looking a little more relaxed at hearing the suggestion of going outside. Perhaps it would see him escape Gandalf’s ever watchful eye.

“May I make a suggestion for the afternoon?” Strider interjected. “I will gladly take all of these young hobbits outside, to allow Bilbo and Gandalf more time to talk or prepare for tomorrow’s celebrations.”

“Would you do that, Strider?” Bilbo asked, grateful to the Ranger. His offer would keep them occupied and out of Bag End, even if only for a few hours. “Of course

if Frodo or Samwise wishes to stay I am certain that they would not disturb us.”

Pippin looked over at Frodo, a little worried that perhaps Frodo would take up his uncle’s offer of staying inside. And no doubt if he did, then Samwise would agree with stopping behind as well. But his facial expression soon changed to one of delight as his cousin answered.

“Thank you Strider, I would appreciate going outdoors on such a nice day outside. A little more fresh air may be greatly beneficial and welcome,” Frodo said, pleased that the man was taking such an active interest in himself and his cousins.

“I’ll be coming with you to, Mister Frodo,” Sam said, more of a statement than a request. There had been two incidents already in the short period since his master’s cousins had arrived. The stout gardener was not about to let Mister Frodo go off in their company without accompanying them and being forever watchful.

Earlier observations about the Ranger were taken into account, and the stout hobbit trusted that Strider would not allow any harm come to his master. Sam reminded himself that there may be things that the Ranger might ask a question about, not knowing the answer to. It was his duty to see to all of Mister Frodo’s needs and he aimed to do it to be best of his ability.

“We can go and play in the stream and dream up some adventures in the tall grass Merry,” Pippin said, clearly excited with his new idea. “Come on Frodo and Sam what are we all waiting for?” he said, trying to race to the doorway.

“Hold on a minute there young Took, it might be wise to take some cool water to drink and something to eat later with you if you plan to stay out for a time,” Gandalf suggested.

“Mind you don’t get taking your games too seriously Pippin or ruin your clothes with your rough play after just arriving,” Bilbo said. Previous visits by the two lads Merry and Pippin had caused Bilbo much distress upon time for them to return home when he would have to explained to their parents what had happened to their nice clothes.

Sam went about getting a small basket ready for their afternoon’s activities. There was cool fresh water to drink, apples to eat under the shade of the trees and a few biscuits and some cheese that Bilbo offered from his well stocked pantry.

“I will bring them all back safely before it is time to prepare supper,” Strider said with assurance.


The four young hobbits and Ranger began walking away from Bag End and paused at the top of the hill to decide which direction to take next. It seemed that Merry and Pippin had already made up their minds for everyone and they were already halfway down the hill before Strider or Frodo got a chance to ask where they were being led.

“They seem to have an abundance of energy for ones so small,” Strider commented as he held back his pace a little for Sam to keep up with him. The Ranger had already offered to take the basket from Sam if it became too heavy but the hobbit had asserted that it was not necessary.

“Those two cousins of mine will certainly keep us all on our toes this afternoon I suspect,” Frodo said in reply. He couldn’t help but smile at the exuberance his two younger companions displayed almost every minute of the day.

There were only two occasions when such abundant energy wasn’t present, the first being when they slept at night, and the second being when it was meal time. Although the second one was not a certainty either for Frodo had experienced their enjoyment of food many times. Often both would eat until there was nothing left upon the table and then be still voicing that they were hungry.

A touch of guilt came over Frodo as his gaze fell upon Merry for a few minutes. Deep down in his heart, Frodo was aware that Merry held onto a secret belief that things would return to how it had been before he left Brandy Hall.

Frodo’s departure to go live in the Shire and live with his eccentric Uncle Bilbo had been a surprise to many, and whispered about by many. Doubt had been cast over the older’s hobbit ability to provide an environment where someone much younger could be expected to thrive. Few of them understood that money had never been an enticement, that had the lad agreeing to such an invitation.

Bilbo had come to see for himself that there were other intangible things that Frodo needed. A warm home, good food, and an education were important too.

Guidance, time and patience were required too, and above everything else, love.

Saradoc and Esmerlda had taken good care of Frodo, and they did love him dearly. With Brandy Hall housing any number of adult and young hobbits, there was little opportunity to spend time individually. The boy had always displayed a thirst for knowledge and an unquenchable curiosity about the natural world. Bilbo saw his chance to give that one on one time to Frodo, and not allow him to become lost.

Frodo and Bilbo had spoken on a number of occasions about going back to visit Brandy Hall. To spend time with Merry and his parents, and Pippin as well. But it would never be like it used to be.

Pippin was younger and missed the games and fun times that Frodo often invented for them. The three of them had spent many days off on adventures. Merry on the other hand, would miss that his older cousin wouldn’t be there to answer his endless questions. There were times that Merry found it easier to talk to Frodo before seeking approval or clarification from his own parents for important advice.

When he first arrived at Bag End, Frodo didn’t know if he was going to like living here, or with his uncle. Everything was so unfamiliar and vastly different, but refreshing at the same time. Now he would happily tell anyone who asked, that he was perfectly happy living in Hobbiton and had no plans for that to change.

Frodo was brought out of his own thoughts as the laughter from Merry and Pippin echoed back at him. He couldn’t help but smile that sometimes the simplest things in life were the ones that made you happy and grateful. Family and friends on a lovely clear day.

The shaded trees were only a short distance away. Merry and Pippin had slowed their pace some and were walking a short distance in front of the other three. Frodo found himself wanting to let go a little as well that afternoon and enjoy the sunshine for as long as possible.

Frodo walked a little more briskly towards Merry before turning to him to speak.

“Merry, I have something to tell you,” Frodo in a completely serious tone of voice. He glanced forward ahead briefly making sure that his path in front was clear and unobstructed.

“What is it cousin?” Merry asked stopping his own walking, not reading anything more into Frodo’s words. Pippin wore a curious look on his face too, wanting to know if something was amiss so soon into their journey.

“Tag you are it!” Frodo declared and in less than a half-beat was now racing away from his two astounded cousins towards the long grass and trees.

“Why you… Baggins,” Merry shouted back as he started to run after his fleeing cousin. “You won’t get far dear Frodo,” he added, trying to increase his speed.

Pippin wasn’t going to be left out of the fun and games, quickly tailing Merry, before pulling out in front in his attempt to catch sight of his older cousin. Strider and Sam couldn’t help but laugh out loud at Frodo’s tactics towards his cousins. It pleased Sam no end that his master was having such unbridled amusement at present.

Sam and the Ranger didn’t need to worry about loosing the three hobbits for their laughter soon echoed through the trees, directing the trailing two in the right direction.


They came to a wooded area with a number of very large trees. One in particular looking magnificent with the different hues in its leaves and the stark whiteness of it’s trunk.

The sunlight shone through the leafy canopy, giving the grass beneath a dappled pattern.

Nearby there was a small stream gleaming a few metres away and it was here that Sam and Strider spotted the other three. The water wasn’t very deep, merely a few inches high, but it ran like clear crystal along its course so that the stones on the bottom could be clearly defined. The sound of trickling water invaded the senses, creating a calm and relaxed atmosphere. The scent of green leaves, moss and fresh grass was everywhere.

Merry and Pippin were already involved in a playful frolic, happily splashing each other with the water as they stood in the middle of the stream. The bottom of their breeches were wet from their attempts to soak each other but other than that the rest of their clothes remained mostly dry.

Frodo on the other hand was merely content to stand on the very edges of the stream, far enough away from his two cousins that he not be showered by them. The water was so inviting and he let the coolness run over this feet.

Sam set the basket down under the larger tree and both he and the Ranger watched from beneath it’s shady canopy.

“Why does Frodo not join in with Merry and Pippin?” Strider asked, noting that it the expression on the hobbit’s face was as though he was forcing himself not to go any deeper into the water.

“Tis not natural for a hobbit to be fully submerged in water unless they are bathing Sir, although with Mister Frodo’s cousins you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise,” Sam answered. “That is what my Gaffer always says.”

“My master has other reasons for not wanting to go any further than the edge,” he added and turned his attention to unpacking the basket to avoid the Ranger’s curiosity further.

Strider did not press the subject further at this point in time as it became apparent that he was in danger of putting a dampener on the currently happy atmosphere by asking such a question.

A few minutes later, Merry, Pippin and Frodo all came to join their companions under the shade of the tree. The two younger hobbits were still trying to catch their breath after much activity in a short space of time.

Frodo sat down directly under the tree, separated a little from the others, leaning his back against the strong trunk. He willed himself to relax and enjoy the peaceful surroundings, the breeze gently ruffling his dark hair.

“Do you have any stories that you would like to share with us, Strider?” Pippin asked as he grabbed at one of the biscuits and a piece of cheese that Sam had just set down on a small plate.

“That would depend on the type of story you would like to hear,” Strider answered as he made himself a little more comfortable underneath the tree. He looked over at Frodo, who by now had his eyes closed but was not asleep. He would still be able to hear what was said.

“I want to hear about some of your other adventures,” Merry declared. “Action with swords and fighting,” he added, which made Strider raise an eyebrow at the strong desire and inclination towards stories with violence.

“What about you Sam, what would you prefer to hear?” Strider asked, involving him as much as the others in the conversation and decision.

“You’re asking me, Sir?” Sam asked with a surprised expression. To be in the company of such a man as Strider was indeed unusual to say the least, but more than he could have hoped for. He had his master to thank for that outcome and his current situation of being included.

“Yes, Sam, I am asking you,” Strider affirmed, noting that the young gardener was not used to having been asked what he would like or prefer.

“Beggin’ your pardon, Sir, but if I were to have a choice, and I thank you for the offering, it would be to hear about the elves that Master Bilbo has spoken about,” Sam said with a wishful look.

“If your story has elves in it Strider then you are sure to win Sam’s heart,” Frodo said with a knowing smile, still relaxed against the tree and with his eyes closed.

“Oh, who wants to hear about them,” Pippin said with a little disappointment creeping into his voice. He gave Sam an apologetic look for sounding like the idea was a poor one. He did like elves, but Merry’s suggestion of hearing about swords was much more interesting.

“Would it please you all to know that I know of many stories that would entail both elves and adventure?” the Ranger offered in compromise.

“Do you know about elves, Mister Strider?” Sam asked, not knowing anybody else apart from Master Bilbo who claimed to know as much about such ethereal folk.

“One of my closest and dearest friends is an elf, Sam. He is indeed a true example of his kind. Tall, fair-haired, lithe, an excellent warrior and bowman. Agile and quick on his feet, and blessed with very keen eyesight. Attuned to the beauty of nature and a friend to woodland creatures and other animals alike.”

“He is also of noble birth, a prince no less among his own people. We have had many adventures together during our long friendship,” Strider described, noting the looks of awe coming from Samwise about an elf who was also a prince. He knew he had won Merry and Pippin over too, with his talk about adventures.

“Please tell us more, Strider,” Pippin beseeched, giving his best pout and gazing up at the Ranger with a hopeful expression.

Strider smiled at the young hobbit, and gestured to the spot of grass beside him, urging Pippin to come closer and listen intently to more of his tales. ‘Such inquisitiveness’ he said to himself, from all of their kind. Something he was still growing used to.

As a Ranger, he had encountered hobbits many times during his travels, even outside of the Shire. Alas, at those times the sharing of stories had not been a priority and the little folk had kept more to themselves.

“Is it true what they say about elves being able to sneak up behind you without hearing them?” Merry asked.

“Yes, Merry, it is true. Elves are held in high regard for their stealth and ability to walk along paths but leave little or no trace of their presence as others would do,” Strider answered.

“Master Bilbo has learned me that they have very fair skin,” Sam added to the conversation, trying to remember the descriptions he had heard in the past.

“That is true, Sam, you have remembered your tuition well. Legolas and many others of his kind have very fine features and fair complexions,” Strider gave in response.

“Hey, Frodo, that means you might be part elven,” Merry said, interrupting the flow of conversation for a moment. “I’ve always said that your skin is much too pale for a hobbit, even if you are part Baggins and Brandybuck.”

“Yes, Merry, but Frodo couldn’t be an elf because his hair is much too dark,” Pippin interjected, agreeing that Frodo had some of the similarities in his face that elven people were said to have inherited.

“Elves are said to have hair as fair as their skin, though I have never seen one to affirm this,” Pippin explained giving what little information he knew about them.

“Young Peregrin, I personally know Lord Elrond. He has long hair that is encircled by a symbol of his race, the colour is described as being dark as the shadows of twilight,” Strider replied, pleased that he still held such keen interest from the younger two hobbits.

“Lady Arwen, Lord Elrond’s daughter also has long lustrous hair. A maiden of great beauty, whom has been written into songs and recorded in tales many times. All describe her as having ‘dark braids of hair touched by no frost.’, Strider recited.

“The elves certainly have a pretty way of putting words together don’t they,” Sam reflected with wonderment. Many a times he had heard Bilbo sing songs that he had copied from the elves. All of them had been written with so much poetry and meaningfulness to them, unlike any other music that Sam had ever come across before.

“Does your friend have fair hair, Strider?” Merry asked. “I don’t think you have told us his name yet.”

“Legolas,” Strider repeated to them. “He counts himself as a woodland elf belonging to the Silvan elves whom dwell north-east of Mirkwood forest. Yes he has long fair hair as do most of his kin from that region. Some of the strands are often plaited or braided to keep them away from his face. His father, King Thranduil, also has long fair hair.”

“A strange sounding name I must say,” Merry commented, never having heard a name even remotely similar for someone.

“If you don’t mind Merry, no matter what characteristics I may share or not share with elves, I would need to grow quite a lot taller than I currently am I should think.  I am quite happy to call myself a plain ordinary hobbit,” Frodo said to his cousin.

Frodo was keeping up with the conversation, but not involving himself much, preferring to listen instead. He tried to hide a smile at the suggestion that he might have elven bloodlines further back in his heritage.

“Enough talk about how elves should look, what of these adventures you had?” Pippin demanded, hoping they would get to the good parts of the story soon.

“Ah, I see you are a little over zealous,” Strider remarked with practiced patience.

As the three hobbits and Ranger talked of strange lands and people, they failed to notice Frodo choosing now to depart their company. He did not want to interrupt their discussion and planned only to wander a short distance away to stretch his legs.

“Tell me more about this place Mirkwood you mentioned?” Merry asked. “Bilbo has told us briefly about going there during his travels, and says it is very strange place to be visiting. A dark place, full of mystery and where you can easily become lost.”

“That is true Merry for those who do not know of the hidden dangers in that forest,” Strider said with a fresh note of warning in his voice. “Mirkwood was once a very picturesque part of Middle-earth with many beautiful trees and plants that grew no where else.”

“What are the hidden dangers, Strider?” Pippin asked in a nervous voice.

“Spiders, Pippin,” Strider said as he watched the faces of the three small hobbit’s grow round with fear. “They are very large and look entirely troublesome for those who do not heed the warnings and would cross their path. They are dangerous, and cunning and should be left well alone,” he explained.

“I do not like crawling bugs of any kind, Mister Strider,” Sam commented as his skin suddenly felt all tingling just thinking about coming into contact with such dark creatures.

“I dare say my master would not like them any more than I either, would you Mister Frodo?” Sam asked, expecting to hear a voice in reply.

A memory came to him of a much earlier time when Frodo had found a large bug on his bedding one day. Bilbo was aware of his dislike for them, and promptly relocated it outside. Frodo had not wanted to admit to anyone how much he hated crawling insects or bugs.

All turned their faces in the direction of where they last knew Frodo to be sitting, only a few minutes earlier when there was no reply. To their surprise, the grassy spot was now vacant.

“Mister Frodo?” Sam called out again as he got to his feet and walked around the tree in case his master had sought to lay down and doze in the dappled shade.

“Frodo?” Strider repeated after Sam, he too getting to his feet and concerned that he could see no sign of the hobbit.

“Sneaked away as quietly as the elves,” Merry stated, seeing Pippin nod his head in agreement.

“I believe Frodo would be sensible enough and not wander too far away. Let us take a short walk and see if we can find him,” Strider suggested, trying to quell any fears they held.

“We don’t even know which direction he went in though,” Merry pointed out plainly. They couldn’t see Frodo anywhere within viewing distance from the tree. Not letting others know where he was going. This was quite uncharacteristic behaviour for his cousin.

“We only need to use what evidence is before us and our knowledge of Frodo and I am sure we will be able to pick up his trail soon enough,” Strider told them, remaining positive about his whereabouts.

“What evidence are you talking about?” Pippin queried. He wasn’t able to see any sign that the Ranger was talking about that was left behind to show which direction Frodo had travelled.

“Please come here Pippin, Merry and Sam,” Strider instructed, crouching down on one knee in front of the grassy spot at the base of the tree where Frodo had been sitting earlier.

“Frodo may have moved as silently as an elf, but I am afraid that he does not have the feet to match,” he said, alerting them to the clues by pointing to hobbit sized footprints made during his silent retreat. As they looked beyond the clear markings on the ground and into the long-grass, a definite path could be seen where blades of grass had been trodden on or lay bent over from where Frodo passed by.

Sam now lead the group as they followed the trail to the missing Frodo.


Whilst Frodo’s friends were only just noticing that he wasn’t with them and beginning to worry of his whereabouts, the dark-haired hobbit was enjoying himself immensely.

After a short walk away from his companions, Frodo had come to another larger tree in the wooded area. Whilst this one was not so wide spread with it’s branches, it was much taller and the leaves were of a more natural green colour. The smell was of fading summer, and the breeze ruffled the ends of his hair. Frodo closed his eyes momentarily, and allowed his other senses to take over and immerse himself.