Word Count: 18,507
It was all because of the stupid wool coat his Pa had made him wear that morning. If it hadn’t been for that, none of it would have happened. Joe was absolutely sure of it.
He hadn’t ridden more than ten minutes down the road toward Virginia City when beads of sweat began to form on his forehead beneath his hat. Heaving a long-suffering sigh, he lifted the hat long enough to swipe at his face with his sleeve; the rough wool was abrasive against his skin. Cool wind lifted his hair, and he turned his face into it to drink it in.
“Sweatin’ like a pig in this blasted coat,” he muttered under his breath, and jammed the hat back onto his head. “Not even cold out.” He’d tried to tell his pa that very thing, but of course, Pa hadn’t listened. He never did about things like this.
Another mile down the road, and rivulets of moisture were trickling down his spine beneath his shirt. Once again, he rolled his eyes at the memory of Pa’s insistence on the coat.
“I’ll tell you what makes it worse, Cochise,” he grumbled. “Adam and Hoss never have to hear lectures from Pa about what to wear. Shoot, they could probably walk around buck naked if they wanted to and Pa wouldn’t even say a word about it.” Cochise flicked an ear. “Okay, okay, he probably would if they did that.”
Still, Pa insisted on treating him like a baby even though he was almost eighteen, for crying out loud.
He shifted uncomfortably as his skin protested against the prickly warmth of the coat, but it didn’t help. “To heck with this.” Pa or no Pa, he was getting shed of this stupid coat before it cooked him alive.
He slowed his pony to a leisurely amble so he could shrug out of the coat. He’d no sooner begun to unbutton it when a rope flew out, smacked him in the face, and dropped down to jerk him from the saddle. It yanked him backwards through the air until his back slammed hard against the ground, his breath driven from him. Several stunned heartbeats passed before he realized what had happened—a lasso had swung out and plucked him from his horse, tossed so quickly while he’d been so intent on pulling off the coat that he’d never even seen the rope, much less the person holding the other end of it.
No sooner had his brain processed that bit of information than two men instantly appeared to stand over him, both wearing the stupidly-pleased grins of trophy hunters who had just bagged their first grizzly. Yet it became apparent pretty darn quick that their intended quarry wasn’t game, but a Cartwright, any Cartwright. And lucky him—he just happened to be the first one to cross their path.
“‘Bout time, kid. You know how long we been out here waitin’ fer one of you Cartwrights to show up?”
Understanding dawned, cold and sharp. He moved to try to get to his feet, and it was only then that he realized the rope pinned his arms to his sides. He wasted precious seconds struggling hard against the rope before remembering his gun a scant moment too late. He scrabbled uselessly for it beneath the heavy barrier of his coat, but before he could reach it one of his captors crouched down and snatched it up, thrusting the barrel so hard beneath Joe’s chin that he almost choked. He instantly stilled at the sharp click of a cocked hammer.
“What do you want?” he grated, swallowing hard against the pressure of the barrel against his throat.
The man gave a hard laugh. “Shouldn’t be all that hard to figure out, kid. Way we hear it, your old man’s got more money than anyone in the territory.” He gave the rope a quick, hard jerk, yanking Joe upward so his face was mere inches from his own. “So, kid…how much you think your pa will pay to get you back?”
“You’re wasting your time,” Joe replied, hoping he sounded tough. “My pa don’t take kindly to kidnappers. He’ll hunt you down…”
The man laughed again. “Way I see it, kid, your pa will be too worried about your hide to come runnin’ after us. And he better be willing to pay up if he don’t want you hurt none.”
Joe looked around wildly on the slim chance that there was someone nearby who might come to his aid, but there was no one in sight. Cochise had slowed to a standstill when he’d abruptly lost his rider, and now the pinto was grazing contentedly alongside the road, oblivious to his master’s peril. Stupid horse.
Rough hands grabbed Joe and jerked him to his feet. As the men began to drag him away from the road, they hooted and cackled about the scads of money they were about to make. Damn it all to hell, Joe fumed angrily. He had a date tonight for crying out loud! He’d been vying for the attentions of Mary Sue Simmons for a solid month, and now his well-laid plans were about to be dashed by two crooks out for some quick Cartwright cash. Well, this particular Cartwright wasn’t about to make it easy for ’em.
“No!” he yelled, digging in his feet and trying to pull away from his captors. “NO!”
He caught the two off guard for a moment, clearly surprising them with his sudden resistance. He kicked out wildly and caught one of them square between the legs, and knew a moment of satisfaction when he heard a high-pitched yowl of pain. But there were still two of them and one of him, and his hands were tied.
Plus, they still had the gun.
It didn’t matter. He continued to struggle, his fear and his anger hot and fierce, until his head exploded in a white flash of pain.
There was nothing quite like the knot left on a person’s skull when they were pistol-clubbed, Joe thought. As he came to, the back of his head throbbed with all the intensity of hard-running hoof beats. Out of reflex, he started to raise his hand to cautiously touch the bump that he knew had to be on his head, but was immediately drawn up short since his hands were now tied behind his back. At least the lasso that had been wrapped around his midsection was gone. He couldn’t remember getting hit, but the raw ache behind his ear and the relentless pounding in his head was proof enough.
He blinked furiously, trying to bring his vision back into focus, as the memory of what had occurred trickled back. He swung his head to look around, and instantly regretted the movement; he squeezed his eyes shut as pain shot up the back of his skull to swirl in a red haze behind his eyelids. He opened his eyes again; with supreme effort, he managed to gather his groggy wits about him enough to look around, more carefully this time.
A jumble of boulders the size of tiny cabins nested off to the right, their hulking shapes pocked here and there with small glazings of ice. To the left was a stand of bare, lightning-killed pines, rigid sentinels casting accusing shadows at him from several hundred yards away. And in front of him, an unfamiliar ridgeline crested into the sky. Everywhere else, nothing but heavy, unforgiving forest.
Where the heck was he? Nowhere on the Ponderosa, he was sure. Pretty sure, anyway. The scattered patches of snow and the steep grade told him they were up high in the mountains somewhere, though exactly where, he couldn’t begin to guess. While he’d been out, the kidnappers had hunkered down and made camp in this wooded clearing, using the surrounding pines as a wind break. He lay on the edge of it, trussed up tight as a wayward calf. The rope around his wrists was so tight his fingers were numb.
The lasso that had so effectively taken him down wasn’t the only thing gone; so was his coat. Maybe the kidnappers had taken it. Yeah, he thought grimly. They seemed just mean enough to do something like that.
Sluggishly, he turned his head to see what the two were up to, and winced at the sharp pain even that small movement caused. He ignored it to test the ropes binding his wrists behind him; he pushed and tugged, but there was no give. Figured. His captors had probably learned knot-tying back in kidnapping school.
They were ignoring him for the moment, likely thinking he was still unconscious. From beneath his lashes, he watched covertly as they labored to build a fire, and he hoped they’d manage to get it done soon. It was colder in the higher altitude; he was starting to feel the wet ground through the thin material of his shirt. Gooseflesh rose along his skin. Now he wished he hadn’t given Pa such a hard time about wearing his coat this morning.
Pa would be missing him soon. Joe had promised that he’d be home before dark. He bit his lip, suddenly guilty that his only concern had been that he’d miss out on a date with Mary Sue when he knew that within hours his father would be pacing the floor, worried sick about him. His sole consolation was that Adam or Hoss hadn’t been along as well to be snatched up by these two low-lifes.
A fierce wind rippled through the clearing, bringing it with it the sharp scent of ice and high-lying snowpack. Joe shivered, automatically curling up to shield himself. The movement caught the attention of his captors.
“Well, looky who’s awake, Clyde,” one of them sneered. “Betcha ain’t feelin’ so cocky now, are you, smartmouth?” He snickered at Joe’s angry glare. “Getting’ pretty cold, ain’t you, Cartwright? Sorry ‘bout your coat an’ all. We’re gonna need to send something to your pa.” He reached down and plucked Joe’s coat from the ground nearby, turning it over to examine it. “Nice coat. Bet it was expensive, wasn’t it?” He reached into the pockets. “Feels like it would keep a body good and warm. I’ve got half a mind to keep it fer myself.”
“Knock it off, Hal.” The other kidnapper snatched the coat away. “We send this coat and old Ben Cartwright won’t have no doubts that we got his boy. Anyway, soon as we get our money you can buy all the fancy coats you want.” He reached into the pockets. “Oh, yeah, this’ll do just fine.”
The two didn’t seem particularly intelligent, but they were nevertheless mean as snakes. Especially the one named Hal, who, judging by his still-hoarse voice, was the one Joe had nailed in the groin earlier. Hal was sure to be nursing a mile-wide grudge, and the hard looks he kept sending Joe’s way made it clear that the man was itching to return the favor Joe had dealt him. It wouldn’t be smart to rile him further.
In any case, they’d both been careless in thinking they’d rendered him completely helpless by leaving him with only his hands tied.
They didn’t object as he scooted closer to the fire to warm himself, and Joe let out a silent breath of gratitude for that much, although he was no less furious over his current predicament. He sulked as the afternoon wore on, trying hard to contain his growing irritation as his kidnappers passed a whiskey bottle back and forth and excitedly yammered on about their impending wealth.
As dusk fell, Clyde lurched to his feet, the pilfered coat clutched in one hand. He shook it out and folded it into a tidy square of wool, and then tied it carefully onto Cochise’s saddle before clambering up on his own horse.
“I’ll be back as soon as I deliver the note,” he told Hal, jerking Cochise’s reins loose from the bush he was tied to. “You watch him, you hear? And don’t do anything stupid while I’m gone.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Hal muttered. “Just see that you hurry up, hear? I don’t much cotton to the notion of sittin’ up here freezin’ my tail off.”
Clyde spurred his horse into movement, tugging Cochise along behind, and disappeared into the undergrowth. Joe was left alone with Hal, who proceeded to finish off the rest of the whiskey. Ignoring Joe, he let out a loud belch, leaned back on his upturned saddle and closed his eyes.
Joe’s heart hammered as he focused all his attention on the one man blocking his freedom. Time went by; he was afraid to guess how much. Hal’s chest and belly rose and fell with increasingly deep regularity, the coarse hairs of his mustache vibrating with each long release of breath. Slowly bending his knees to pull his feet underneath him, Joe’s boot scraped against stone, and he froze as Hal pulled in a hitching, snorting breath, shifting around against the saddle a few times before finally settling back again.
The wind ruffled through the pines overhead in a whispered hush as more time passed. Other than the cold breeze, the only sounds were Hal’s heavy breathing and the occasional resigned sigh of his tired mount as it stood tethered nearby. Over it all, the harsh pants of his own breathing filled Joe’s ears.
Like a deer crouching in cover as the hunter draws near, he wanted to explode out of position and run. The urge to do exactly that was so strong he could barely contain it. He shook with it, fought with it, almost gave in to it even as Hal’s breath broke and then evened out once again.
Wait…wait…be sure he’s really asleep…
High overhead, a hawk’s faraway cry pierced the sky, other worldly in its loneliness. A shudder ran up Joe’s spine. As though marking the seconds and minutes ticking by, his headache pounded with merciless fury.
It wasn’t going to be easy to run, he knew, not with his hands tied behind him like this, and not with snow and mud to contend with. Maybe running for it now wasn’t such a good idea. Maybe it would be smarter just to take his chances, stay put and wait for a better opportunity…
Even as the thought crossed his mind, he shook his head. There might not be a better time; there might not be another time at all.
His eyes riveted on Hal’s slack face, he got his feet under him, and then heaved himself upward, his thigh muscles bunching with the effort of keeping him quietly balanced as he rose to a standing position. For a long second he stood absolutely still, heart pounding, expecting Hal to jump up and knock him to the ground again.
But he didn’t. He didn’t move at all.
Slowly, Joe turned and began to walk through the snow, gritting his teeth to keep himself from bursting into a full out run. One foot down, then the next. The compacting snow squeaked under his boots; he resisted the urge to look back. Another step, and another, and another.
The treeline at the edge of the campsite, with its shadows and underbrush and cover, was almost within reach. Before he quite knew how it had happened, his legs were stretched out into a stumbling run, his feet matching his heartbeat to thrum out a desperate cadence.
He could escape. He could. He was a fast runner and Hal was half drunk. All he had to do was make it into the heavier underbrush, and he was home free.
But as he crashed his way through the dark forest beyond the clearing, it instantly became apparent that his bound hands hindered his progress even more than he’d expected. The snow kept throwing him off balance, and he couldn’t use his hands and arms to right himself.
Worse, he hadn’t figured that Hal would so quickly give chase, much less start shooting at him.
Still, he managed to duck the first few shots, more likely due to Hal’s drunken aim rather than his own awkward attempt at escape. He fixed his eyes on the dark haven of the forest in front of him and ignored both Hal’s enraged yelling and the buzz of the bullets passing by his head. As the trees grew closer around him, he plunged forward, the thrum of his blood loud in his ears.
And then the world abruptly tilted and the ground suddenly came up to meet him, and Joe knew he’d been hit.
He lay still, sucking in air, resting his face against ice-crusted snow. Hal’s shouts reverberated around him, echoing off the trees and rocks to surround and trap him. He’d be discovered any second now. He had to move. He had to move now.
For the life of him, though, he couldn’t make his body do what he wanted it to. He’d been hit somewhere high on his back, that much he could tell. Liquid heat spread across his back, a stark contrast to the icy wetness of the snow into which he had fallen.
Hal was nearly upon him. The squish of the man’s boots sloshing through the mud and snow got louder and then suddenly stopped. In a flash of instinct, Joe closed his eyes and held his breath.
“Cartwright? You dead, Cartwright?”
Don’t move, don’t move.
He barely managed to hold back a yelp of pained surprise as Hal’s boot poked hard into his side and flipped him onto his back. There was a sharp, shocked intake of breath, and a muted, “Ah, hell!”
And in the next instant, Hal was gone, leaving Joe alone, bound and bleeding, and wondering if he’d just gone and made the stupidest decision of his life.
The view outside the windows had grown dark, and Ben’s worry and irritation steadily increased as the last glimmers of winter sunlight disappeared behind the mountains. He stared, unseeing, at the meal Hop Sing had placed before him, scarcely aware of the subdued clink of cutlery against china as his older sons silently tucked into their roast beef and potatoes. It was only through concentrated effort that he managed to continue to push his own food back and forth across his plate.
When the thrum of hooves stuttered into the yard outside, he slammed his napkin onto the table and leapt to his feet. Relief congealed into hard anger as he stormed through the front door. Ridiculous, that’s what it was. When would the boy learn to stop being so inconsiderate? It had to stop. He’d set Little Joe straight once and for all. He’d…
But it wasn’t Joe returning, looking typically sheepish or apologetic or feigning innocence; it was only the boy’s horse loping into the yard, and Ben knew instantly that something was wrong, terribly wrong. His heart slammed into his throat, for Joe’s coat lay across the saddle–not slung around the saddle horn, as was Joe’s habit, but neatly folded and tied across the saddle itself. It was a cruel, mocking gesture with one message only, and he instantly knew it for what it was: His boy had been taken, kidnapped… Ben didn’t even need to read the note protruding from the pocket to confirm it.
He stretched out a tentative hand to remove the note from the pocket, closing cold, numb fingers over the paper. Pausing for a long moment in an effort to steady his breathing, he steeled himself for the words written there. Then, quickly, he moved to the lamplight and unfolded the slip of paper — and felt his knees start to buckle when the cryptic words struck him full force.
We have your boy, Cartwright, and he’s cold.
How long before he freezes to death?
Adam was immediately at his side. “Pa? What is it?”
He didn’t answer — –couldn’t answer. Adam grasped his shoulder in a firm grip and then plucked the note from his suddenly trembling hands, grimly reading aloud the curt instructions for delivery of the ransom the following day. The demands were simple enough: five thousand dollars, noon tomorrow, no law, and Joe would be returned to them, safe and unharmed. But until then…
Ben turned back to Cochise, gliding his hands along the pinto’s side until they came to rest on his son’s coat, and he gently released the garment from the leather ties. He fisted his hands in the soft, woolen material and lifted it to his face, inhaling deeply of the sweet musky scent that was so distinctly Joe. Ben closed his eyes, struggling hard to breathe around the sudden lump in his throat. He’d been so angry, so furious with the boy just minutes ago and now…now…
Dear God, son…where are you?
The sounds of Hal’s departure had long ago ceased. The silence of the snow-dusted forest settled about Joe, a heavy mantle of solitude. And still he lay motionless, not daring to open his eyes. He had to be sure Hal was truly gone. If he happened to return, Joe knew there’d be no convincing him that he was dead the second time around, even half-drunk as the man was.
He lay motionless up to a point, anyway. He could close his eyes and hold his breath, but he couldn’t control his shivering. Away from the warmth of the fire and lying still on the patch of snow-covered ground, the cold had settled in quick; the icy wetness pierced clear through to his skin.
At last he opened his eyes and looked around cautiously…and let out a horrified gasp at the sight of the fist-sized spot of blood on his shirt. No, it couldn’t…it couldn’t be this bad, he thought. He struggled to raise himself up, twisting his neck for a better view. It just couldn’t…it wasn’t…it wasn’t even really hurting that much. Maybe he’d just stuck himself good on a branch or landed on a sharp rock or something, or…
No, there it was…a pea-sized hole in his shirt, high on his chest. He’d been shot clear through. The awful realization of it set him to trembling in earnest, and nausea clawed its way into his throat.
Panic quickened his breath. This was bad. Very, very bad.
What am I gonna do, Pa?
A sudden blast of frigid air swept over him then, stealing his breath and tearing his eyes. He turned his face from it as he struggled to calm himself and think. Pa wasn’t here. There was no one who could help him or save him or tell him what he should do.
“Well, I’m not going to die here,” he whispered. Not here, not like this, not tied up like an animal for his pa to find after the spring thaw. He squared his jaw and took a deep breath. He wasn’t called the most stubborn Cartwright for nothing.
For one wild moment, he considered running after Hal and surrendering. Surely he’d have a better chance with the kidnappers than he would alone and wounded in the woods.
No sooner had the idea passed through his mind than he abandoned it. Hal would probably reward him with another bullet, this time in the head.
The trembling in his muscles was so violent it scared him. He managed to roll to his side and then clumsily push himself to his knees. Pausing to rest, panting, he lifted his head to survey his surroundings. Dismay hit him full in the gut, for he had no idea where he was; in his headlong escape through the forest, he’d paid scant attention to which direction he was headed. He thought he might be able to get his bearings if he could find his way back to the campsite, but even if he managed to backtrack and find his way, heading toward the place where Hal had likely returned wasn’t an option.
Still, he had to move somewhere, anywhere. It took several awkward attempts to get to his feet; if he fell again, he wasn‘t sure he‘d be able to get back up. He realized his first priority had to be to somehow untie himself.
His clothing, damp from the snow, offered little protection against the falling temperatures, and the wooden glade he stood in was dimming quickly with the passing of dusk. He didn’t have much time. Squaring his jaw and ignoring the cold, Joe set off through the forest…
Four shots, just over the next rise, one right after the other.
Cameron Williams pulled his horse up and waited, but that was the end of it. No more sounds disturbed the quiet, other than Ivy’s breathing and the creak of saddle leather as Cam shifted slightly. Blowing on his hands to warm them, Cam glanced toward the pass to the east that led to home and warmth, and then back toward the direction the shots had come from. He groaned inwardly. It would be so easy for him to ignore the sounds altogether, to pretend they were nothing more than rifle fire shot off by some random hunter with a deer in his sights. If he just stuck to his own business, his quiet, uncomplicated life could continue on as usual; his only concern that night would be Kima scolding him for being late to supper.
But the very nature of the gunfire made it impossible for him to just let it go. The sounds hadn’t been the hollow, booming echoes of a rifle; they had been the flatter, higher-pitched blasts of a six-gun. Of course, it wasn’t unheard of or impossible for someone to use a sidearm to hunt with, especially if the hunter was going after squirrel or rabbit, and maybe that was exactly what the shooter was up to. Nor was it unheard of to hunt at night. But the fact was that the isolation of the area often served to attract a less than savory element, and that meant trouble. Sometimes bad trouble. And for someone to be hunting this late at night this high on the mountain with a storm on the way…
He urged his pony to the top of the rise and then paused for a long moment, biting his lip as he stared into the wooded horizon. To the east lay Kima and home. And to the west…
A horse and rider burst out of a stand of pines and tore out as if the devil himself were giving chase. Cam’s gut instantly told him this was the shooter, and that the man sure hadn’t been aiming at a rabbit. As quick as that, his decision was made for him — but it sure wasn’t the one he wanted to make.
“Damn,” he muttered. He should just turn toward the pass now. Kima was making stew tonight, and even now probably had her arms folded all angry-like, wondering what was keeping him. Still…
Cam clicked to his pony, and headed west over the rise.
Joe slogged through patches of snow and mud, his progress slow and clumsy despite his fierce determination to move forward. He wished he could blame his poor balance strictly on the fact that his hands were still bound tightly behind his back, but the truth was that his unsteadiness had a lot to do with the fact that he’d been shot. He fought to stay on his feet, afraid that if he went down, he’d stay down. It didn’t matter that he had no idea which direction he should go, or even which direction he had come from, because to stay in place meant death.
He knew that. So he concentrated on making it to the next tree, and then the next, and then the next.
Pines in front of him. Pines behind him. Nothing but pines all around, as far as he could see, which wasn’t far at all, given that the moon insisted on hiding its face behind a thick bank of clouds. The trees crowded in on him, tall and straight and disapproving, stern judges ready to pass sentence—a death sentence. He found himself going over mistakes he’d made, things he’d done wrong, signs he’d missed. If he’d been smarter, faster, more alert, maybe—
He scowled up at the unyielding trees. They crowded out what scant light managed to reflect off the snow and smothered him in frigid darkness, giving neither mercy nor pity.
A drooping pine branch snagged hard on his shirt collar; he staggered, rocked back, almost fell as the heels of his boots scrabbled for purchase. The jarring motion rattled his teeth and awoke the fire in his back and chest. He stood still, breath coming in harsh, noisy rasps, his legs trembling and his stomach roiling. He needed to rest, just for a minute. Just long enough to regain some strength.
But he’d grown up in these mountains; he’d seen what happened to people who stopped to rest when they were caught out in the cold. When you stopped, you died, simple as that.
He pushed on.
Moonlight broke through the clouds overhead, casting a bluish glow upon the snow-covered landscape. At least he could see more than a few feet in front of him now. He tried to pick up his pace, but it was all he could do to put one foot in front of the other. The violent trembling that continued to rack his body had become a relentless, almost unbearable torture, making each trudging step slower and more painful than the last.
Things were headed downhill in a heck of a hurry. He didn’t have to be a genius to know that much.
And then, suddenly, there were tracks in front of him. Boot prints in the snow. There was someone close! He could follow the tracks, find the person who made them, and he’d get help. But…what if it was one of the kidnappers who had made those tracks? He’d walk right into a trap.
He shook his head, his decision made. Kidnappers or not, he had to find someone to help him. He wasn’t going to make it off this mountain alive otherwise. He set out, careful not to lose sight of the prints.
There was no way to tell how long he’d been walking when he realized the awful truth: he’d been following his own trail, around and around in circles through the dark shadowy pines.
He wanted to quit then, just sit in the snow and stop. He made himself take another step, though, and then another. He shut out the pain and kept moving, and he refused to look down to check how much he was bleeding. There was nothing he could do about it anyway.
He stepped into a deeper drift of snow, staggered, and almost went down. Again he managed to catch himself. The trees swayed around him as he tried to regain his bearings. Where was Cochise? He needed Cochise. He needed to swing up on his pony and get home. He should’ve been there hours ago. Pa was gonna be furious. Why was he out here anyway?
Oh, yeah…the blasted kidnappers. And now he was shot. Too cold to be out… so darned cold….
Had to keep moving. Had to find shelter, had to…
Only he wasn’t moving. He was standing still, leaning against a pine, his cheek pressed into the rough bark. Not moving…his dulled senses sharpened with a rush of fear. How long had he been standing still? How long?
He didn’t know. Heaven help him, he had no idea.
Shoving away from the tree, he wobbled forward a few steps — only to pull up short. Which way had he been heading? He whirled around to face in the opposite direction; it looked no more familiar. Snow flew into his eyes and into the open neck of his shirt, slipping down and stealing what little remained of his body heat. Which way, which way…
Focus, Joe. Concentrate.
Okay. Okay, he had to think. There was something he had to do…something important. His hands, that was it. He had to free himself from the ropes, or he’d never be able to move as fast as he needed to in order to survive. He needed to find something sharp, some rocks, anything to help him saw through the ropes.
There. Not twenty feet away, a low, hulking stand of boulders spreading a brooding, dark blanket over the snow. Stumbling over to the snow-draped rocks, he dropped to his knees and turned to his back to them. He stretched his arms out backward as best he could, sliding numbed fingers along the surface. Nothing. He shifted position and tried again, but found only smooth rock. Pushing his hands higher up the slope of the rock, he ignored the cramping in his arms from the awkward position. When the edge of his palm caught on a sharp protrusion of shale, he let out a choked sob of gratitude, allowing himself the first glimmer of hope in the midst of this cold, cold night.
Only something was wrong. The thin edge of rock wasn’t doing anything. He stretched his stiffened fingers up to feel the rope, and black despair hit him in the gut.
The moisture in the rope had frozen solid; the fibers were bound together by ice, creating an impenetrable and rigid trap around his wrists. His hands had just been too cold to notice. It was going to take a lot more than the sharp edge of a rock to free him.
His eyes began to tear in earnest, whether from the biting wind or from despair, he didn’t know, nor did he any longer care. He’d have to get up and keep moving with his hands tied as they were. Lingering here any longer would be a fatal mistake. He struggled onto his knees again, and then strained to get onto his feet — and failed, instead collapsing face first into the snow.
He caught his breath and rolled over onto his back. In that moment, he knew without a doubt that it was over.
He was finished.
The moon peered down at him from a ragged break in the clouds. Snow fell onto his face, into his hair, into his eyes. He blinked, trying to keep the moon’s blurred shape in focus. Funny, he wasn’t shivering so bad any more. In fact, he was warmer than he’d been since he’d woken up in the kidnappers’ camp.
He watched the moon and he wondered if his pa was looking for him. And then the clouds shifted and the moon abandoned him, leaving him alone in a soft, dark world of silently falling snow.
Pulling himself over onto his side, he drew his legs up tight to his body in a vain attempt to gain warmth. “It’s bad, Pa,” he whispered. “It’s really, really bad.”
Cam could clearly hear Kima’s voice in his head, telling him what a fool he was. As usual, she was right. He was a fool. She’d told him he’d had no business going out hunting when the sky clearly threatened snow, but he’d argued that if the next storm came in as heavy as they expected, they needed to lay in some extra meat. She’d argued with him right up until he left, shoving a lantern into his hand at the last minute and saying if he was going to be a fool, there was no need to be a blind one.
He’d gotten what he’d gone after, at least; the field-dressed carcass of a young buck was tied securely behind his saddle. No matter how much snow came during the next few days, at least they wouldn’t be hungry. If he had any sense at all he’d head his horse in the direction of home, where he could sit in warmth and watch Kima finish dressing the deer while she chastised him.
Just as Kima had insisted this morning, though, he had no sense, for he nudged Ivy further down the trail, still seeking the source of those gunshots. The wind picked up, and the snow turned into icy pellets that made him squint into the darkness as he hunched deeper into his coat. Ivy laid her ears back and stopped.
“Go on, girl.” He nudged the heels of his boots into her flanks, and though she gave a disapproving snort, she reluctantly moved forward, picking her way through the snow for perhaps twenty yards before she stopped again. This time it took him several firm kicks to persuade her to continue. She did, but moved even more slowly than before, gingerly raising each hoof and setting it down with deliberate caution, her ears laid back flat against her head to show her displeasure.
Yes, there was no doubt about it: he was all kinds of a fool. Even his horse was smart enough to know when it was time to call off the hunt. Just to the edge of that tree line, he promised himself, eyeing the dim outline of another stretch of woods. He’d go that far and no further. He’d have to get…
He lurched hard in the saddle as Ivy slipped, scrabbled hooves on ice to get her footing, slipped again. Just as Cam was convinced they were both going down, she lunged into the more powdery snow ahead and stood there, sides heaving, legs trembling in fear and exertion.
Okay, enough was enough. Whatever those shots had been about, it wasn’t enough to keep him out on this mountainside any longer. He gave Ivy her head, and she eagerly turned and headed back in the direction of home, moving as quickly as the slick terrain would allow.
And then he saw it. A crumpled form in the shadow of a short stand of boulders, already partially covered in snow.
“What the…?” Cam narrowed his eyes, trying to make out what the thing was, but the watery moon passed behind a bank of clouds once again. “Whoa, Ivy.” He dismounted, untied the small lantern from the saddle and quickly lit it. Tugging the disgruntled mare along behind him, he pushed through the deepening snow to the pile of boulders.
A soft curse brushed past his teeth as he held the lantern higher to reveal a man’s body, curled in upon itself, its back against the rocks, dark stains on the front of his shirt and dotting the snow. He held on doggedly to the possibility that he’d stumbled onto the results of a hunting accident. Perhaps the first three shots had been at a running animal, and the fourth had somehow gone wrong. Maybe the rider he’d seen exploding from the cover of the underbrush had been charging after escaping game, and hadn’t even realized one of his shots had hit the wrong target. It was a common enough occurrence. He probably was butchering his kill, and would no doubt turn back to find his partner once he finished.
“Just a kid,” Cam muttered, shaking his head. Damn shame.
For a moment, he considered leaving the body where he’d found it and heading for home, but quickly discarded the idea. He’d have to carry the boy’s body on home with him. Maybe his companion really would be coming back for him, but Cam couldn’t stand around waiting to find out, not with the weather worsening as it was. Unguarded, it was possible wolves would get at the poor kid, so he couldn’t just be left to lie here. And if the other man didn’t show up later, Cam would have to go down to Virginia City himself and let the sheriff know so that the next of kin could be notified.
A twinge of regret passed through him for the buck he’d have to leave behind, for Ivy couldn’t carry all three of them. He rolled the body over a bit further in order to get a good hold, and froze. Thoughts of a hunting accident collapsed like tinkling ice. There was no longer any doubt that this had been no accident.
The boy’s hands were tied behind his back.
Cam jerked back and stood quickly. His hand went to the rifle in its scabbard as he hurriedly scanned the dark woods around him, but he saw no movement other than snowflakes swirling down from the sky. Ivy swiveled her ears toward him and then lowered her head to snort suspiciously at the body on the ground.
“Nothing out there, then, girl?” Cam murmured, and the violent hammering of his heart eased somewhat. Apparently whoever had killed this poor kid was long gone. Ivy would know if anyone was out there watching. The man he’d seen riding so fast down the mountain wasn’t anywhere around.
The mare pushed her muzzle closer to the boy’s white face and snorted again, her breath fluttering his hair and blowing some of the snow free.
And the boy groaned.
Cam started, and then cursed again, a long, steady stream of expletives as he whipped his hunting knife from its sheath and dropped to his knees. Hurriedly, he rolled the kid over again to get at his back — and in his haste, his cold, stiff fingers lost their grip on the knife. He grabbed wildly at it, but it tumbled away, hit a rock, and bounced into the shallow ravine to the right of the nest of boulders before disappearing into the dimly lit snow.
Cam stared at the spot where the knife had disappeared, thought briefly of taking the time to try to recover it, and then shook his head. He might be able to eventually find the knife, but it would take too long. The kid was knocking at death’s door. If he wasn’t warmed up soon, he’d have no chance at all.
And so it was that the buck that was to have fed him and Kima so well through the next week was dumped unceremoniously onto the snow. Cam wrapped the kid in the rolled up blanket he kept tied behind his cantle before draping him as gently as he could manage across the saddle. He climbed up behind, pulled the boy up against him, and gouged Ivy hard in the flanks.
Much later, when the lights from his cabin glimmered into view, he shouted for Kima, though he hadn’t needed to. As was often the case, his wife seemed to have a sense about such things; he wasn’t even surprised to see her hurrying through the snow to help him the moment he’d reined in his horse. She asked no questions, but only paused once they were inside to examine the blanket-wrapped burden her husband had carried through the door. Gently pushing aside the material covering his face, she inhaled sharply.
“God, Cam. He’s just a boy.”
Cam simply nodded and proceeded quickly to the back of the cabin to lay the young man on the bed, and together they removed the snow-flecked blanket.
Kima frowned up at him. “His hands, Cam. Why are they…”
“Someone tied him. The same good-for-nothing who shot him, I would guess. I lost my knife in the snow before I could cut him free.” He felt the ropes binding the boy’s wrists together and grimaced. “The hemp is frozen so hard I’d likely have had a heck of a time cutting through it anyway.”
Kima scowled at him. “Well, don’t just stand there,” she snapped. “Fetch that tea water from the stove so we can thaw the rope. And stoke up that fire real good so we can warm this boy.”
Cam smiled to himself as he jumped to do her bidding, thanking divine providence that the woman he married wasn’t the hand-wringing type. She immediately took charge, just as he’d known she would.
They quickly succeeded in cutting through the ropes. Once free, the boy’s arms fell limply to his sides. Through it all, he never stirred; his breathing remained shallow and uneven as Kima set about restoring warmth and life to his nearly frozen body. As she bustled around, she gave Cam orders to briskly rub his wrists, his hands, his feet, his legs.
“It’s lucky you found him when you did,” Kima murmured as she unbuttoned the boy’s damp shirt, making small, distressed sounds at the amount of blood staining the fabric.
Cam sighed, chafing the kid’s feet between his palms. More than lucky, he thought grimly. It was damn near miraculous. Had he not been hunting on that treacherous slope to begin with, had Ivy not slipped when she had, had he not decided to turn her at that precise point on the trail…
He raised his eyes to the kid’s stone-still face. Come on, kid, he thought. You gotta do your part.
The unspoken plea screamed in Joe’s head, but Joe couldn’t seem to summon the strength to call it aloud.
Where am I?
He was in a bed that wasn’t his own, that much he could tell through his muddled thinking. And he hurt. God, he hurt.
“Is he waking up at all?”
A strange voice. A man’s voice, a voice he did not recognize. Someone in on the kidnappers’ plan? Had they found him? Had he tried so hard for nothing, then? His heartbeat quickened as fear and dismay rose up inside him.
“No,” came a woman’s voice then. “He’s still the same.”
A soft hand glided gently along his face, its touch cool and feather-light. A woman’s hand. A soothing hand. He turned his cheek into it, and his wildly stammering heart slowed and settled. A damp cloth pressed against his forehead, bringing relief to his hot skin. Hot? How could he be hot? He’d been so cold for so long…
The cloth pressed again, and the woman gave a low murmur of distress. “His fever is back, Cam,” she said softly. “I just don’t know if I can get it down.”
“Someone’s gotta be out looking for him,” the man replied. “Maybe I should ride into town and ask around…”
“You’ll never make it through that storm.”
“I know, I know. You’re right,” the man sighed. “I just wish we knew who he was.”
Joe…Joe Cartwright…please get my pa.
Joe longed to answer them, to plead with them, but he could already feel his dwindling awareness beginning to evaporate. Still, he tried once more to summon the strength to speak.
“Cam…you think…Look! You think he’s trying to say something?”
Please get my pa.
“I don’t think so. It’s the fever. Must be your imagination, darling.”
Spent and frustrated, Joe sank back into oblivion….
A swirl of icy pellets skittered across the porch, chased by a brutally cold wind that sought him out and taunted him with a low, moaning voice. It was the kind of weather that could turn deadly if a man let his attention be drawn away from its lethal power for a moment too long — and his boy was out in it.
Beneath the relative shelter of the porch, Ben shivered as he stared out into the darkness. His sons were worried about him. He knew that, but he couldn’t abide the forced attempts at normalcy. More than that, he couldn’t bear to choke down another meal when he wasn‘t hungry, couldn‘t face another sleepless night knowing that Little Joe was somewhere out there, maybe scared, maybe hurt.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out the note, now limp and lined with numerous foldings and refoldings. He read it for what had to be the hundredth time, even though he could recite it word for word even in his sleep — which, indeed, he had.
How long before he freezes to death?
He wanted to rip the thing into tiny pieces and throw it out into the wind, wanted to see it disappear into the snow as if it had never existed. Instead, he carefully folded it up once more and tucked it away. Through the window at his back he could hear the low rumble of his sons’ voices as they talked. He could only make out a word every now and then, but it was enough. Soft words, anxious words. Words about plans and options and search parties. Words about him and his state of mind.
Words about their brother and his chances.
How long before he freezes to death?
Ben drew Joe’s woolen coat closer to his chest, stroking the heavy garment as tenderly as if it were the boy himself, remembering when he’d last seen him.
The boy hadn’t even wanted to wear it, having already reached for his lighter weight gray jacket as he was preparing to leave that morning. But Ben had insisted on it, much to his son’s annoyance.
“Aw, come on, Pa!” Joe had complained. “It’s not even cold out!”
“Perhaps not now, but it certainly will be later, young man,” Ben had replied, barely glancing up from his newspaper.
Joe had blown out an exaggerated sigh as he snatched the blue plaid coat from its hook, grumbling as he slipped into it. “Pa, I can’t even get to my gun with this horse blanket in the way.”
“Oh, I’m sure you’ll be just fine, son.”
But he hadn’t been fine. Ben’s hands fisted against the urge to rage against the sheer unfairness of it all.
They’d done everything, after all, everything they were supposed to do, from the moment Cochise had loped into the yard that night. Ben had followed the ransom note’s instructions to the letter. As directed, they’d assembled five thousand dollars into a plain cloth bag and had placed it at the base of a double-trunked oak just outside the ranch boundaries the following morning. And then, they’d waited. And waited. Hours had passed, a virtual eternity. But the day had stretched into night, and the night into morning. As a cold dawn spread its weak light across the mountainside, the bag of money was still there, untouched beneath a growing blanket of snow, and Joe was still missing.
That had been two days ago.
No other word had come. No other signs, no other instructions, no other clues. All they had was the note and the boy’s blue woolen coat. Ben had kept it near at hand since Joe’s disappearance, fully aware of the furtive, anxious glances Adam and Hoss kept sending his way but purposely ignoring them. The thought that a kidnapper had deliberately ripped the garment from his son’s body solely to make the boy suffer had kept Ben awake late into the night, tormenting him with images of Joe’s body, stiff and frozen in the snow, his face white and lifeless…
Ben shuddered and choked, forcing the vision out of his head before it drove him to his knees.
How long before he freezes to death?
“Pa?” came Adam’s voice from behind him.
He swallowed, pulled in a breath, and tried to sound strong. “Yes. Right here, son.”
“It’s pretty cold out here.” Adam moved to stand beside him. “You want your coat?”
Ben sighed heavily but didn’t respond.
Adam cleared his throat. “Pa, we didn’t have a choice. The weather was getting too bad.”
Ben shook his head, his vehement retort harsh and curt. “No. No, we could have given it another hour. We could have…”
“Pa, we couldn’t. The wind was getting too strong. It’s better to wait until daylight when it’s…”
Anger flooded through him. “It might be too late by daylight!” he snapped. “Joe could be…”
Adam’s hand rose to grasp his father’s shoulder. “I know, Pa. I know,” he said softly, and his eyes dropped to the coat Ben still clutched in his arms. “We’re doing everything we can.” He tipped his head toward the door. “Come on inside, Pa. It’s cold out here.”
“In a minute.”
Adam hesitated, started to say something, and then seemed to think better of it. He nodded, gave Ben’s arm a final squeeze, and then went quietly into the house.
Ben stood in place, shutting his eyes against the sight of the icy world around him, knowing the long hours until first light, when they could set out again, would seem an eternity.
They had spent the entire day on the road to Virginia City, following the path Joe had ridden the day he had disappeared, trying to determine where and when he had been overtaken, but the new fallen snow had effectively erased all traces of the boy’s passing, save for one.
Even if they hadn’t been looking, it would still have been a miracle that they had happened upon it at all. Even from a few feet away, it could easily have been dismissed as a rock or leaf or something else inconsequential. But Hoss had hollered and flung himself from his horse with an agility that belied his size, and had plucked it from the ground, where it had been almost completely buried beneath the drifts. Ben and Adam had stared at him, bewildered, until he shook the snow from it and held it up.
The tin cup that had been sitting on the small table beside the bed hit the wall with a sharp ping, sending a spray of water onto the floor and shooting Cam to his feet.
Kima uttered a cry of alarm and ran to the boy. She tried to hold his wildly thrashing arms still, but had little success.
“No!” he screamed. “No! Let me go!”
“He’s going to throw himself to the floor,’” Cam said brusquely, even as he took Kima by the shoulders and moved her out of the way. Quickly, he caught hold of the kid’s flailing arms and pushed him firmly back down on the bed. Kima was immediately back at the boy’s side, gently stroking the sweat-dampened face and murmuring softly to him.
He calmed at her voice, and then for a brief moment, Cam saw lucidity return to the boy’s eyes. He stared up at Kima as they both panted for breath.
“What’s your name?” she asked him, her voice low and gentle.
His brows knit together for a long moment, as if deciding whether to answer. “Joe,” he answered. “I’m Joe.”
She opened her mouth to ask more, but his eyes clouded again, and he began to tremble violently.
“It’s… so cold,” he said, his voice shaking.
Kima tucked the blankets snugly around him and smiled reassuringly. “Well, Cam and I are going to keep you warm now, Joe.”
The boy’s breathing was becoming more steady and regular, but just as his eyes began to close, he lifted his head slightly as if to say something more.
“What?” Kima’s hair fell over his face as she leaned in close to hear his urgent whisper. As the boy fell back into an exhausted sleep, Kima slowly straightened, her hand over her mouth. Cam caught the shine of tears in her eyes as she turned to look at him.
“What?” Cam asked. “What did he say?”
“He said…he said…they took his coat.”
Grimly, Cam jerked the leather strap upwards, tightening the cinch around Ivy’s belly. “I don’t like leaving you up here alone,” he said, taking a packed saddle bag from Kima’s hands.
His wife smiled at him. “Don’t be silly. You leave me here alone often enough. I’m used to it.”
Cam didn’t smile back. “That’s not what I mean, and you know it. The man who did that to that poor kid…we don’t know if he’s still around. He might be waiting…”
Kima put a finger against his lips. “Hush, now. We’ve talked about this. That boy needs a doctor. If he doesn’t get one soon, I’m afraid he may not make it.”
“You’re as good as any doctor,” Cam said gruffly, and she laughed.
“You are very biased,” she teased, and then sobered. “His fever…I can’t seem to get it down. He hasn’t woken once in the time he’s been here, not truly. I don’t want his death on my conscience, Cam. He needs a doctor now. It can’t wait. Besides, you know the sheriff needs to know about what’s happened.”
Cam sighed and nodded, and turned to strap the saddle bag onto the saddle. “I’ll hurry. If the sheriff isn’t out on some call, I should be able to make it back here before nightfall.”
“I’ll be waiting.”
Wrapping his arms around his wife’s slim waist, Cam pulled her close and pressed his mouth against hers. A long moment later, he pulled away. “Stay inside until I get back. I brought in extra water last night, and there’s enough wood stacked next to the fireplace to last for two or three days, at least.”
“You want me to be a prisoner in my own home?” She grinned at him.
But Cam’s belly was cold inside from something he couldn’t name. “Don’t tease me, Kima,” he said seriously, and kissed her again. “Stay inside,” he repeated, and then swung up on Ivy’s back.
He heard the sound of her humming as he rode out.
It was the size of the big man that first caught Cam’s attention; he stood a full head taller than the small group of cowboys clustered in front of the Bucket of Blood. Cam hitched his horse nearby and couldn’t help but hear the conversation as he drew closer, and he hung back to listen.
“…been missing for coming up to four days now, Bill,” the big man was saying. “I just got done talking to Sheriff Coffee about getting a search party together. We’re gonna meet up here in about half an hour… Anyone else you can get to help us would be…well, anyone you can get.”
The group of men knotted around him was somber. A couple of them reached out to give his wide shoulders a kindly pat, and sympathetic murmurs rippled through the air.
“Real sad to hear about your brother, Hoss.”
“Yeah, too bad about Little Joe.”
“We’ll be there.”
“Appreciate it,” the big man said tiredly, rubbing a hand over exhausted-looking eyes. “My pa and Adam do, too.” He offered them a brief smile of gratitude, but as the men turned to head back into the saloon, his smile disappeared and his shoulders drooped. His entire body, huge and forbidding only a moment before, now looked worn and wilted as he shoved his hands in his pockets and proceeded down the street toward the sheriff’s office. It was more than tiredness that caused him to look like that, Cam thought. This man was grieving.
There was no reason to let him go through any more misery than he already had. Cam hurried up behind him and reached up to tap him on the shoulder. “Excuse me?”
The man turned and frowned at him. “Can I help you?”
“Your brother, the one who’s missing? He’s about fifteen, sixteen? His name is Joe?”
“Joe’s seventeen.” Hoss eyed him warily.
“Well, you see, I have him,” Cam explained. “He’s…”
His words were cut off by the big man’s fearsome roar. Cam was abruptly jerked off his feet and slammed hard against a brick wall. In the next instant he found himself staring into blazing blue eyes so full of wrath that he almost stopped breathing.
“Where is he?” the man growled, his voice low and fierce as he shoved Cam again for emphasis. “So help me, mister, if you’ve hurt that boy, I swear…”
Cam swallowed hard as ham-like fists twisted tightly into his collar, feeling for all the world as if he’d been caught in the grip of an enraged grizzly. “No…I didn’t…I swear…I didn’t…”
“Hoss! Hoss! Come on, now!” came a stern voice from Cam’s left, and an older man suddenly appeared, grabbing hold of the big man’s arms. Cam almost wilted in relief as he noted the tin badge gleaming on the man’s vest. The iron grip didn’t lessen one bit, but at least Cam wasn’t in danger of imminent death. This wasn’t going well at all.
“Now what’s this all about?” the sheriff asked, eyeing Cam suspiciously.
“I’ll tell you what it’s about, Roy,” the man answered, shaking Cam hard enough to knock his head against the wall. “This here’s the feller who kidnapped Little Joe!”
Cam blinked his vision back into focus. Had he heard right? Kidnapped. Kidnapped?
“Kidnapped?” he stammered, and began to struggle in earnest against the bear’s grip. “I didn’t…kidnap…anybody.”
“Let him go, Hoss.”
Hoss relaxed his grip but still kept a rock-hard hand on Cam’s shoulder.
Cam straightened indignantly, and noticed in dismay that several saloon patrons had gathered, apparently to witness his humiliation. He sighed. “I didn’t kidnap anybody,” he said again. “I found the boy almost frozen to death three days ago up on the western slope of Mount Rose. My wife and I have a cabin not far from there.”
The big man stared at him. “Mister, what are you saying? You found Joe? Why didn’t you…”
Cam narrowed his eyes and the man named Hoss had the grace to look embarrassed.
“Sorry,” he mumbled, and then smiled broadly. He dropped his hand from Cam’s shoulder and instead grabbed his hand in a fierce handshake. “I can’t tell you how much we…”
“There’s something else you need to know,” Cam interrupted him hurriedly. He hated to deliver the rest of the news, but there was no help for it. “He’s hurt, and pretty badly, too.”
Hoss dropped his hand. For a brief instant he shut his eyes and then nodded, obviously bracing himself for the worst. “Tell me,” he demanded.
Cam didn’t mince words. “He’d been shot. My guess is he probably would’ve died out on the mountain from blood loss, except that the cold slowed down the bleeding.”
The big man paled. A slow, heavy breath went out of him. “But…but he’s…Joe’s alive. That’s what you’re telling me, aren’t you?”
Cam nodded. “He was when I left to come down here to get a doctor.”
“He’s alive!” the man repeated, and a slow grin spread across his face. “Pa! I gotta tell Pa and Adam and…where are my manners?”
Once again he caught up Cam’s hand in his own hefty grasp and shook it heartily. “Hoss. Hoss Cartwright. And that rascally brother of mine you rescued is Little Joe Cartwright.”
“Uh…Cameron Williams.” Cam tried not to wince as Joe’s brother squeezed his hand.
“Well, Mr. Williams, I gotta run and fetch my pa and brother and tell them the news. They’re out near Gold Hill getting together another search party. Guess we ain’t gonna need that now, Roy, huh? Do you mind waiting just a little bit ‘afore heading out, Mr. Williams?”
“No, I…no, I suppose not.”
Hoss nodded. “It’s all settled then. I’ll send someone for the doc and we can all head out in about an hour. Roy here’s gonna want to come with us, ain’t you?”
The sheriff nodded. “Don’t know how much luck we’ll have picking up the kidnapper’s trail with all the snow we got the other night, but we gotta start somewhere. Mr. Williams, why don’t you step on over to my office while Hoss is rounding up his pa and brother? We’ll have some coffee and talk for a bit.”
“Alright, coffee sounds good,” Cam agreed amiably, though after the scene that had just ensued, he would’ve preferred something a mite stronger than coffee. Experimentally, he opened and closed the hand Hoss had shaken so enthusiastically, and found himself more than a little relieved that he hadn’t had to deliver worse news to the man.
Absently, he watched a couple of cowboys mount their horses and ride out, and he frowned as the saloon patrons filed back in through the saloon doors, the entertainment over.
He’d done what he’d set out to do that morning…he’d found the help for the sick boy in his home and had alerted the sheriff and had even been lucky enough to run into someone from the boy’s family.
Why, then, couldn’t he shake the feeling that something was terribly, jarringly wrong?
The smell of food drifted into his room. Hop Sing had breakfast ready, which meant he had overslept. Again. Joe sighed, wriggling a little deeper under the blankets, soaking up the warmth for a minute longer before he had to face the cold morning. Only…the distinct sound of pine knots popped in a fire; light snapping and rustling signaled logs jostling one another as they settled into place. Joe’s nose twitched; sure enough, mingled with the cooking smells were the scents of spent ash and burning pine. Gosh, somebody had been nice enough to stoke up the fire in his room. Comforting as it was, the fire made no sense; if Joe wanted to take the edge off the chill in his room by getting a fire going, he was the one who would have to get it done. Hop Sing hadn’t pampered him in that particular way since he was eight.
Unless he was sick. But he wasn’t sick…was he? He tried to open his eyes to look, but his lids were so heavy they wouldn’t cooperate. A spoon clinked energetically around an iron pot, and a woman’s soft humming filled his ears. Heavy-lidded or not, his eyes flew open.
Not his room. Definitely not his room. And yeah, he was sick.
He struggled to sit up, and pain shot through him. And in that instant, he remembered it all, right up until the point where he’d collapsed in the snow and hadn’t been able to get up again. He fell back, not realizing he’d groaned out loud until the woman dropped her spoon and whirled around to stare at him in surprise. Once more he forced himself up into a sitting position, and the woman shook her head and bustled to his side.
“No, aka’bi waahni’, you do yourself no favors by pushing so soon,” she said, urging him back against the pillow with gentle hands. “You must stay still.”
It was frightening that he really had no choice but to do as she suggested, because even that small effort had left him shaking and weak. He knew he was bad off. How bad? He looked down at the bandages swathing his bare chest, and then back up at the woman.
She nodded somberly. “You’ve been badly hurt,” she said. “For a long time we weren’t sure you would wake up.”
For a long time… How long had he been here? Another rush of anxiety hit him, and he shot his hand out to grip her sleeve. “My pa,” he croaked. “Does he know I’m here?”
The woman’s fine brows knit together. “Who is your pa?”
“Ben Cartwright,” Joe rasped out. “Ben Cartwright of the Ponderosa. Please, you’ve got to get word to him…”
She shushed him, and took his clutching hand in a reassuring grip. “Easy, aka’bi waahni’. My husband has gone down the mountain to Virginia City to talk to the sheriff about you. They will locate your people.”
Joe stared at her for a moment, and then, deciding she was sincere, he relaxed against the pillows. Relief flooded through him and his eyes slipped shut again. His pa was coming for him. He was going to make it. His pa was coming…
He was drifting back under the warm mantle of sleep again, but he was curious.
“That…akabey wawney word you called me…what is that?” he whispered.
She laughed, a warm, tinkling sound. He opened his eyes far enough to see her kind smile.
“Aka’bi waahni’,” she said. “It is Shoshoni for snow fox. We don’t know how you managed to escape from those who tied and shot you, but you did it. You are crafty, like a fox.”
He grinned back at her, and shook his head. “Not crafty,” he mumbled, shutting his eyes once more. “Just stubborn. Just ask my pa when he gets here. He’ll tell you.”
He fell asleep to the comforting sound of her soft laughter.
He wasn’t sure how much time had passed when she woke him again.
“You must eat,” she told him. “You won’t get your strength back if we don’t get something into your stomach.” She helped him sit up, using extra pillows to support him before bringing a bowl to him. His stomach growled as he caught the scent of the liquid she spooned up, and she laughed. “I do believe you will make it after all, Joe Cartwright.”
He grinned, and then opened his mouth, letting her feed him. “It’s delicious,” he sighed.
“It’s just rabbit stew,” she shrugged. “We would have had venison, but Cam had to leave the deer he…” She broke off and shrugged again. “Cam will have to go hunting again when he gets back.”
Joe slowly chewed a small bite of meat, savoring the taste. He was suddenly ravenous, but knew he’d better go easy for his stomach’s sake. “Cam?” he asked.
She nodded, and fed him another spoonful of soup. “My husband.”
“He’s headed to Virginia City to let my pa know about me,” Joe said, not entirely sure if this was true or if he’d just dreamed it.
But the lady nodded and smiled. “That’s right. I wasn’t sure would remember.”
“I remember. Your husband…he’s the one who brought me here?”
“Yes,” Kima confirmed, and got two more spoonfuls of fragrant broth into his mouth before she continued. “He found you lying out in the snow, practically frozen stiff. It almost killed you, but you were lucky it was so cold out there.”
Confused, Joe raised a brow. “Lucky? It sure didn’t feel lucky at the time.”
She chuckled. “No, I don’t suppose it did.” She shrugged. “When someone is very cold, bleeding slows. On a warmer day, you might not have lasted long enough for someone to find you.” She cocked her head, studying him. “Do you remember who shot you? You talked in your sleep a little, but not enough for us to get a description before Cam left. He won’t be able to tell the sheriff much.”
“I remember,” Joe said, his voice hardening with the thought of the two men who had ambushed him. “And I’m going to enjoy running them down when I get back on my feet.”
She snorted and waited for him to open his mouth for more stew. “That won’t be for awhile yet. I’m afraid you’ll have to rely on the law to gain your justice for you. You’re going to be much too busy healing.” She brushed a stubborn curl up away from his eyes before offering another bite. “What happened to you out there?” she asked, her voice very, very quiet.
He stopped chewing. For a moment she didn’t think he would answer. Finally, he cleared his throat. “A couple of hombres jumped me on my way to town,” he said. “They knocked me cold and carried me off. Sent my pa a ransom note and took my coat to go along with it.” His voice was rough with anger.
“A ransom — they kidnapped you for money, then?”
He nodded, staring at the bowl in her hands. “One of them, Hal, stayed in camp with me while the other one delivered the message. I saw my chance and took off running, but…well, it didn’t work. Hal chased me down…”
“…and shot you,” she finished for him when his voice drifted off.
Joe sighed. “Yeah. He thought I was dead, and he took off. I wandered around in the snow for awhile, and the next thing I know…” he shrugged slightly, “…I woke up here.”
“Well, I’m very glad you’re awake. Has anyone ever told you, Joe, that you are a very noisy sleeper?” she asked teasingly, and urged more soup on him, obviously wanting to shake him out of his somber mood.
She did a good job of doing just that. He studied her, taking in her deep-set, ebony eyes and sleek, dark hair. “You’re really pretty,” he almost said, but thought better of it, since she was a married woman and all. Instead, he said, “You know my name, but you haven’t told me yours.”
“Mrs. Williams,” she told him.
“What’s your first name?”
“It is impertinent to ask a woman her first name, particularly a married woman,” she said teasingly.
Joe grinned and nodded. “Yeah, I know. But I’m asking anyway.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Due to your injury, I’ll excuse your bad behavior,” she said, smiling. “It’s Kima. And yes, before you ask, it’s an Indian name. Shoshone.” There was a slightly defiant tone in her voice, though nothing showed in her expression.
“Kima,” Joe repeated. “I like it.” His grin widened, and he decided he didn’t care what compliments were appropriate for married women. “It’s a beautiful name. Fits you just right. Your husband is a very lucky man, Kima.”
“And you, Mr. Cartwright, are a bit of a flirt,” she said briskly.
“A lot of one, ma’am,” he admitted, and they both laughed. Then Joe sobered. “Seriously, I can’t thank you and your husband enough for what you’ve done for me. I’d have died out there without your help.”
“You can thank me by finishing all this stew,” she said, and put her hand on his forehead. She frowned and shook her head. “Your fever is lower, but it’s still there.”
“Must be why just eating is wearing me out,” he sighed, and put his hand up to stop her from giving him any more stew. “I can’t hold any more. Really. I…”
They both heard it — rather than any real identifiable sound, it was a sudden interruption of silence in the woods outside. Kima looked toward the door, alarm in her eyes.
“A horse mouthing a bit,” Joe said softly.
“Yes,” Kima agreed, and Joe saw fear wash across her face.
Cold dread began to trickle into Joe’s belly. “Could it be your husband?”
“No. I can’t imagine that he would have had time to get down to Virginia City and back again. He had the sheriff to talk to, and the doctor to fetch…” She shook her head and moved to the cabin’s one window, lifting the edge of one of the blue curtains to peer outside.
“One of your neighbors, maybe?”
“The nearest neighbor lives twenty miles on the other side of the ridge. He wouldn’t be coming across all this snow just to visit, believe me.” She dropped the curtain and turned to stare at him, and he watched dread rise up within her. “Whoever it is, they aren’t approaching the cabin. They must be waiting just outside the clearing, off in the trees.”
“Tell me you have a gun in the house,” he said quietly.
Ben snapped the reins irritably as he urged Buck through a particularly rough section of the narrow trail. Over an hour into the trip and it seemed to him they’d traveled less than a mile. Heavy snow slowed their progress to a crawl, and the journey to the Williams’ cabin was proving to be slower and more arduous than any of them had expected. Ben knew it couldn’t be helped, but that knowledge did little to ease his burgeoning impatience.
“Take it easy, Pa,” murmured Adam from behind him, and Ben twisted in the saddle to glare at him.
Adam gazed back sympathetically. “Pa, he’s alive, and that’s what’s important right now.”
Ben sighed heavily before acknowledging the sentiment with a slight nod. “I know,” he replied. “He’s alive.”
Joe was alive, but hurt badly. Shot. It was the sole bit of information on the crudely scrawled note that had been delivered to them in Gold Hill by one of Hoss’ half-drunk friends. That and the information that Hoss was already on his way to the Lassiter ranch to fetch Doc Martin and that he’d meet up with them in Virginia City.
By the time he and Adam met Cameron Williams at the sheriff’s office, Ben had been fair to bursting with questions about Joe’s condition and what had happened to him, but before he could get a single word out, the sheriff held up a hand and stopped him. “Nope, nope. Not now. I’ve already peppered poor Mr. Williams here with enough questions, Ben,” he said. “I’ll fill you in later. For now, we’d best get going if we’re gonna make it by nightfall.”
If Ben hadn’t been so eager to be on their way, he’d have slugged his old friend right then, sheriff or not.
As it was, Hoss had prevented him from lashing out by arriving with the doctor, and they’d all immediately mounted up and set out. Considering it was barely noon, and taking into account Cam’s description of the location of his cabin, Ben had at first thought they’d reach it long before sundown. But the snowy terrain had given way to ice as they climbed higher along the southwestern slope of Mount Rose and it was proving especially difficult to navigate the horses through the slick and narrow trails. As slow-going as the trip was turning out to be, Ben mused bitterly, they’d be lucky if they arrived at the Williams cabin by midnight.
Ben’s head jerked up at the shout from up ahead. Williams abruptly reined in his pony and dismounted, then crouched down to study something in the snow.
“What’s going on?” Adam asked, craning his neck to see.
Ben shook his head. “I don’t know,” he muttered. “With the luck we’re having, there’s probably a rockslide up ahead blocking the trail.”
He motioned to Adam and Hoss; they all dismounted and sloughed through the snow up to where the sheriff and Williams were already deep in discussion. Williams was gesturing and pointing to something along the ground. He looked up sheepishly, almost guiltily, when Ben joined them.
“I’m awful sorry, Mr. Cartwright,” he said. “I thought this would be the best route to take and all, what with there being so many horses…”
“I don’t understand.”
“What I’m saying is, I thought this route would be easier on your mounts. The other trail’s rougher and steep, but my Ivy’s pretty nimble and is used to the terrain. But I hadn’t counted there being so much ice on this side of the ridge. It’s made things a lot slower.”
“Well, it looks like it’s gonna get worse the higher we go,” Williams replied, squinting at the trail ahead. “We don’t have a lot of options.”
Ben rubbed his eyes tiredly. “What do you suggest?” he asked, hoping the option wasn’t to head back to Virginia City.
“I think we should double back and head back up the way I came down. It’s steeper, but it’s all snow, and not ice.”
Sheriff Coffee nodded. “I think Williams here is right, Ben. It’ll add some time, but the way it’s going it can’t add much.”
Ben chewed his lip thoughtfully for a moment and nodded in resignation. “Alright. You know the country around here,” he replied. “Whatever you think is best.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Cartwright. Awful sorry,” Williams removed his hat and twisted it nervously in his hands. “I shoulda known about this. I shoulda checked beforehand. I know you want to see your boy.”
He turned to head back to his horse but was stayed by Ben’s hand on his shoulder.
“Cameron. My boy…you said he’s shot? How bad is it?”
Cam looked at him for a long moment as if deciding how to answer. “Mr. Cartwright, maybe you should just…”
“In the back. They got him in the back. Clean through. I think the kid was trying to run off on ‘em.”
Shot in the back while trying to escape. Dear God. Ben closed his eyes, fighting to tamp down the sudden trembling that seemed to want to take over his body.
“You okay, Mr. Cartwright?”
He nodded, or he thought he nodded. He heard Adam’s voice as if from far away.
“Come on, Pa. Let’s get going. Little Joe’s waiting for us.”
Little Joe’s waiting for us. Ben tried to comfort himself with the rather optimistic notion as he numbly remounted his horse; it brought to mind an image of his son warm and conscious and free from pain, waiting patiently for them in Cam’s cabin, though Ben instinctively knew how far from the truth it was.
He also realized that there was more, possibly devastating, information about what had happened to his boy up on that cold mountain. It was probably better not knowing now if he were to keep his wits about him for the rest of the journey. No wonder Roy wanted to spare him the details.
The going was difficult as the afternoon wore on, just as Cameron had warned them, but Ben found himself welcoming the distraction; the effort of maneuvering his horse through the sometimes precarious, snow-covered terrain kept his mind from dwelling on his youngest son.
Ben glanced up in surprise when Cameron reined in suddenly and motioned anxiously to the sheriff. Ben couldn’t hear their discussion, but from Cameron’s frantic gestures and Roy’s somber nods in response, Ben knew something was wrong.
Ben urged his horse through the snow until he was alongside them. “What is it?”
Cameron’s head jerked toward him anxiously. “There,” he said, pointing toward a line of trees to the west. “Tracks, Mr. Cartwright. Two horses cutting through those woods and heading straight up toward the cabin.”
Ben swallowed down a cold wave of dread. “Could it be…maybe a neighbor?”
“No neighbor. It’s not anyone who has any business being up here.”
“Then…then you think…”
“Yes, Mr. Cartwright,” Cam replied. “Yes, I do.”
Kima brought two old rifles and a small ammunition box and placed them on the bed. Joe opened the box. The scant contents inside had him looking up at her, his brows raised.
“We’re running low on supplies,” she told him apologetically. “Cam was supposed to go on a supply run a week ago, but the snows came…” She raised her hands helplessly. “I put most of the bullets we had in a pouch and packed it in Cam’s saddlebag before he left this morning. I was afraid he might need them if he ran into those men on the trail. I just…didn’t really think they would have the nerve to show up here.”
Joe stared down at the almost empty box for a moment, and then blew out a long breath, nodding slowly. His jawline hardened in determination. Throwing back the blankets, he took up the rifles and proceeded to load them. “Get me my clothes,” he told her, barely looking up.
“You aren’t well enough…”
He raised his head. “Kima. Get my clothes.”
She bit her lip, hesitating for only an instant before nodding. Joe went back to preparing the guns for firing. A moment later she offered him his trousers and boots.
“Your shirt is still wet,” she told him. “I was washing it just before you woke up, trying to see if I could get the blood stains out.” She indicated the shirt hanging on a peg on the wall; it had been wrung out, but was still so damp a tiny puddle had formed just beneath it. Faint shadows made a ragged circle around a small, frayed tear — the remnants of blood stains around the hole the bullet had made when it had passed out of him in the front. “I’ll get you one of Cam’s shirts,” she told him, and politely averted her eyes as he pulled himself up and yanked the trousers on.
She turned back to him as he sat on the edge of the bed to tug his boots on. “You’re pale as a sheet,” she muttered. “And you’re weak. You aren’t up to this.”
“I’m not up to getting killed, either, and that’s what’ll happen if I just lie here,” he retorted, holding an arm across his bandaged chest as he pushed off the bed. His legs trembled under his weight, but Kima said nothing more. Instead, she headed for the tiny wardrobe at the far end of the room for the shirt she had promised him.
A sudden shout from outside froze her in her tracks.
Kima’s eyes met Joe’s. She’d still had some hope that whoever was out there was someone else, anyone else other than the men who had tried to kill this boy, but…
Joe confirmed the worst. “It’s Clyde,” he whispered hoarsely, and handed her one of the rifles. “The one who sent the ransom note to my pa.” He looked toward the door. “They’ve come back for me,” he said, and she wanted to protest at the bleak resignation in his voice.
“Cam and the sheriff will be coming, and perhaps your father, too. We can hold these men off until help comes,” she insisted.
“We’ve got three bullets between us, Kima. Three bullets. It isn’t enough,” he said.
“Cartwright, we know you’re in there!”
“We have to try!” she urged him, but he was looking at her with an odd expression on his face.
“They’re here because of me,” he said. “I brought them here. It isn’t fair to you. You didn’t ask for any of this.”
“Neither did you,” she said, frowning.
“If I just go with them, they’ll leave you alone.” He looked at the door, the line of his thinking suddenly clear.
She shot her hand out to grab him by the arm. “You listen to me, Joe,” she said fiercely, and his face swung toward her, eyes wide. “Do you really think if you hand yourself over to them they’ll just walk away from here? These are men who didn’t care if you died a slow death in a snowstorm; they are men who shot you and left you for dead. Do you really think they would have the decency to leave an unprotected woman alone and unharmed? Do you?”
“Kid, I’m talking to you!” The voice called out, louder and more insistent.
Joe looked at the door again, and then back at her. Finally, he shook his head. “No.”
She breathed easier. “Then you know we have no choice but to fight.”
He nodded and gave her a grim smile. He moved to the door and leaned heavily against the wall beside it.
“Are you all right?” she asked him, and then shook her head at the senselessness of the question.
“The whole room is swimming,” he said wryly, but when Kima began to hurry in his direction, he put up a hand warning her away. He gestured to the cabin‘s one window. “Stay over there and keep watch. And stay close to the floor.”
She hesitated, and then did as he asked.
Slowly, Joe shoved back the wooden bolt on the door and eased it open a crack, letting cold air spill into the room. He pressed one eye against the opening, and then looked back at Kima.
“They’re coming across the clearing,” he whispered. “Get ready.” Within seconds, the sounds of creaking leather and jangling bits drifted through the partially open door.
“Cartwright? Hal here says he shot you up pretty good. Fact is, we was surprised to hear you wasn’t dead after all. So…just how bad off are you, son?”
“Not too bad to see the two of you straight to Hell if you come any closer,” Joe shouted back.
Coarse hoots and laughter erupted from outside. “Well, now, I wouldn’t go bettin’ on that if I was you, kid. From what we hear, you’ve got one foot in the grave already. Course, being as your up and yammering at us, could be you ain’t as bad off as that feller thought. Still, I reckon that hole Hal put in you has got you weak enough that we can take you without too much trouble. Don‘t you think so?”
Hunkered down on the floor, Kima watched Joe’s throat work. She could see that he was shivering even as beads of sweat glistened on his forehead, his throat, his chest. He held the rifle in front of him with both hands as he pressed his back against the wall, letting his head fall against it. His breath coming hard, he looked at her for a long moment before shouting, “I think your man Hal is a worse shot than he’s letting on, Clyde. He just winged me, that’s all.”
There were angry mutterings and Hal’s voice pitched high in denial. Then a few moments of silence went by before Clyde called out again. “Tell you what, kid. You come on out now, and we won’t hurt you none. We’ll collect our money from your rich daddy, and then we’ll all go our separate ways. Shoot, we’ll even set you somewhere where they can find you quick and take you on down to the doc to get you patched up. What do you say, boy?”
“Go to hell.”
Clyde tsked loudly. “Guess we’ll just have to do this the hard way, then.”
Kima watched Joe shiver; his chest heaved as he took breaths that were too fast and too shallow. The strain was too much, just as she’d known it would be. The men outside knew it, too. She could hear it in the menacing tones of their voices. They knew he was hurt. They knew he couldn’t hold them off. He shut his eyes as though gathering strength.
When he opened them again, they were still bright with fever, but had hardened into something Kima didn’t like seeing. “Pull the curtains back on the window so I can see,” he whispered to her. She reached up and did as he asked; he gazed at the clearing outside the window for a moment, and then visibly sagged. “Edge of the tree line is too far away,” he muttered softly. “If you climb out the window, there’s too big a chance they’ll see you before you get across the clearing.”
“I’m not leaving you here!” she hissed.
He shook his head. “It’s not a matter of…” He stopped, and cocked his head. “Kima. Listen to me now.” His voice was very quiet, and very controlled. “I want you to hide under the bed. They haven’t said a word about anyone being in here with me, so I don’t think they know. Keep quiet, keep the gun cocked, and if anyone pokes his head under there, you pull the trigger, you understand?”
“I won’t be able to see to help you fight them off if I’m under the bed,” she argued. “You’ll be…”
“I’ve got one bullet in this rifle,” he said coolly. “There are two in yours. Unless I’m really lucky, I won’t be able to hit either one of those men out there. On a better day, I’d have a fighting chance, but today…” his voice trailed off, but she knew what he meant. He was sick, weak, shaky.
Unless I’m really lucky… Joe Cartwright’s luck wasn’t much to speak of, from what Kima had seen.
She opened her mouth to argue again, but he was having none of it. “Get under the bed,” he told her again.
“Then take my bullets,” she said, and started to unload her rifle.
“No!” He said the word so sharply that she looked up at him in surprise. “No,” he said again, more gently this time. “If I can’t hit one of them with the first bullet, it’s doubtful I’d do any better with the second. I want you to have something to protect yourself with, just in case they stay long enough to snoop around the cabin. If you see a face other than mine from beneath that bed, you fire, you hear me?”
She stared at him. The youthful face looked older, somehow, hard and determined. Her heart suddenly broke for the man he would have become, and now most likely never would, if those men outside had anything to say about it. Despite his ragged breathing, he summoned a bright grin for her, a blinding flash of cocky boyhood and fierce masculinity.
She bit her lip, then scooted under the bed; she cocked the rifle, and tried to blink her vision free of tears as she lay on her belly to wait.
It wasn’t a long wait. The attack came in a flurry of gunfire, and Kima heard Joe’s gun explode, followed by an enraged shriek from outside.
“He got me in the hand!” one of the men outside bellowed, and more shots followed. Bullets splintered chips of wood from the door; the slivers scattered across the room, some no more than a few inches from Kima’s nose. She jumped when Joe’s rifle hit the floor with a clatter. All she could see of him from her vantage point was his boots; they turned and slid with small jolting movements as he strained to hold the door closed.
He did not last long. The door banged back against the wall with a rush of pounding boots. Shouts and curses from the men filled the room, along with the sounds of fists hitting flesh. Tiny cries welled up in her throat, threatening to disclose her hiding place, and Kima pressed cold fingers against her mouth.
“I’m gonna kill you for shootin’ me, you murderin’ little…”
“Not now, Hal,” came the clipped command. “We gotta get out of here with him first. Tie him up.”
Joe was flung belly down onto the floor in front of her, his face toward her, hair falling into his eyes. His arms were yanked up hard behind his back, and a rope was wrapped quickly around his wrists. Pain-glazed eyes met her gaze, and she gripped her rifle, raising it a couple of inches off the floor in preparation to move.
She couldn’t just lie here. She couldn’t. I have to help you.
He knew what she was asking. He moved his head sharply sideways, just a quick jerk.
He grunted as a booted foot kicked him in the side. Rough hands wrapped ropes around his wrists and pulled tight.
“You have to tie me up before you can handle me, is that it?” Joe mocked. “I should’ve known. The two of you together aren’t man enough to take me on face to face…” He grunted again, and then coughed and choked as he was rewarded with another kick.
“I ain’t listenin’ to his smart mouth all night,” one of the men growled. A hand gripped Joe by the hair and twisted his head backwards while a bandana was forced into his mouth and tied tightly behind his head.
He kept his eyes on hers, willing her to remain silent. She tried hard not to cry, but tears tracked down her cheeks with impotent fury.
And then, in one violent motion, he was wrenched up off the floor and she could no longer see his face. His boots were all that were in view; they slid and stumbled as the men pushed and dragged him out the door. Outside, horses snorted; hooves tramped a muffled beat across the snow, and then all was quiet. Kima was left in a silent cabin.
For long moments, she lay frozen. Not two feet away, traces of blood stained the wooden floor.
The sudden staccato of gunfire that erupted in the distance stunned them all into horrified silence.
It was Sheriff Coffee who regained his composure first. He yanked his rifle from his scabbard. “Let’s go!” he snapped, kicking his horse briskly in the direction of the tracks, no longer finding it necessary to let Cameron lead the way.
Ignoring safety in their urgency to get to Joe, they covered the rest of the distance quickly. When the cabin finally came into view, a woman rushed through the door and stumbled through the snow to meet them. Ben’s heart sank.
They were too late.
Cold…so horribly, painfully, bitterly cold. His bare chest and shoulders burned with it. In all his life, Joe never thought he could be this cold again, and unbelievably the nightmare was happening all over again. He’d stopped trying to control his trembling; it was only making it hurt more. All over again, he could feel his senses beginning to desert him. He was relieved that Kima was okay, though he knew it would be over for him soon. No one would be coming around to rescue him this time.
Clyde tightened his hold around his waist. “Kid’s shaking so much I can hardly keep hold,” he grumbled.
“He sure ain‘t doubling up with me,” Hal retorted. “Damn kid got me in the hand, remember?”
“Well, pull up for a second so I can cover him up. He keeps up with this shaking he’s gonna shake hisself right off this horse.”
“Then you use your own saddle blanket. He sure as hell ain’t bleedin’ all over mine.”
Joe let out a long sigh of gratitude when Clyde stopped his horse and wrapped a blanket around him several times. At that moment he didn’t even care why.
“We’ve been following these tracks for an hour, and we still haven’t caught sight of them.” Ben said. He looked up at his oldest son. “They don’t even appear to be moving in any particular direction. What do you make of it?”
Adam shrugged and looked up the trail, where Hoss rode hunched sideways in the saddle so as to better see the tracks. “Hoss says they’re hunting a place to hole up and hide, but they made the mistake of waiting until they got up too high. Too flat and too few trees up here to hide much of anything. He says that’s why they’re traveling in circles and in such a hurry they can’t be bothered to try to hide their trail. I agree with him.” He looked back at Ben, eyes dark with intent purpose. “We’re going to catch them, Pa. It’s just a matter of when.”
Just a matter of when. Just a matter of precious minutes. Just a matter of life and death.
Cameron’s wife Kima had painted a chilling picture of what had happened.
“They came with guns and beat the door in,” she’d sobbed into her husband’s shoulder. “They said they could still get the money. Joe had made me hide under the bed, and I couldn’t do anything…” She had cried harder, and Cam had hugged her close. After a minute, she’d drawn back, shaking her head, and though tears still shone on her cheeks, now anger flashed in her dark eyes. “He was so sick, and they didn’t care. They beat him and tied his hands and dragged him out into the snow and took him away. He didn’t even have a shirt on,” she finished helplessly, and Cam had pulled her to him again.
Her words had hit Ben like a hard punch to the gut. His boy was badly hurt, and now he was being dragged through freezing temperatures only half-dressed. He’d swung back into the saddle and headed out, not heeding the others’ shouts to him to wait. He’d been only vaguely aware of Adam’s shouted orders for Cameron and Doc Martin to stay at the cabin to care for the distraught Kima.
Thinking of it now, Ben’s heart began to slam with the same killing rage he’d felt when he’d first heard Kima’s words. And here they were, still trying to catch the animals who were killing his son bit by slow bit.
It was just a matter of when.
“There they are!” Hoss’ shout rang out. Ben snapped his head around to see him point toward a tall ridge of boulders several hundred yards in the distance where two horses plunged through the snow. One mount labored under two riders.
They spurred their horses forward. Their intended quarry froze, heads coming up in surprise. For one tiny instant, Ben caught sight of Joe’s face, pale and haggard even at this distance, and rage blanked out all thought as he roared an oath and dug his spurs deeper into his horse’s flanks. The kidnappers immediately came to their senses and put spurs to their own mounts. The gap between them closed, clouds of white powder flying through the air as the horse carrying two riders struggled through the drifts.
And then, unexpectedly, Joe’s captors swung their mounts around and stopped. Dying sunlight glinted off the barrel of a gun as it was brought up to rest against Little Joe’s temple.
He was bleeding again. Joe could feel it, feel the thickness of it sticking to his skin, sticking to the blanket covering him. He was starting to shiver again, and he knew it was from more than the cold. Something in the back of his mind told him that wasn’t good, but he’d stopped caring. At least he wasn’t cold anymore.
He was listing forward, and below him, the snow-covered ground spun. He expected to fall, but his sluggish mind registered the fact that someone was holding onto him, although he couldn’t think who it was.
Wait. Clyde. It was Clyde. He couldn’t just sit and let Clyde hang on to him. Clyde was bad. Joe struggled feebly and was rewarded with a rough shake.
“Knock it off, kid.”
Something hard pressed against his head, and Clyde yanked him closer.
“Alright, Cartwright. This here’s a warning! You all go on back the way you came or I’m gonna put a bullet in your boy here — you hear me?”
A voice came from far away, a familiar voice. Joe struggled to remember the name that went with it, but couldn’t. The most awful racket kept obliterating everything else, a deafening, vibrating sound; it was several moments before he realized it was the sound of his own teeth knocking together.
“You listen here! This is Sheriff Coffee! Now you know that boy ain’t no good to you dead! Look around you! As far as you can see, no matter where you look, you boys are gonna leave a trail. There ain’t no way you’re getting outta here! Why don’t you turn yourselves in and we’ll go easy on you?”
Frantic whispers bounced back and forth between Joe’s captors, ended by a low-pitched, triumphant giggle from Clyde. He pushed Joe forward slightly and Joe felt him fumbling with the edge of the blanket wrapping him.
“Alright, Cartwright,” Clyde hollered. “Alright! How ‘bout this?”
Clyde pulled the blanket free, and cold air enveloped Joe in a muscle-seizing rush. His eyes flew open at the sudden, bare-skinned exposure.
“How long before he freezes to death, Cartwright?”
“Dear God!” Ben cried out. “No!”
They tentatively spurred their horses forward until perhaps fifty feet separated them from Joe’s captors. A warning shot from one of them halted any further movement.
Ben growled and touched his heels to his horse’s flanks, determined to charge ahead anyway. He was held back by Adam’s quickly restraining hand on his arm.
“Pa, no. He’ll shoot Joe if we get any closer!”
The kidnapper still held his gun to Joe’s head, but that was the least of Ben’s worries now. Joe was off-balance, his body tilted slightly forward and held upright only by the rough hand of the gunman; his violent trembling and the appalling bluish pallor of his skin was visible even this distance. Red stained the bandage across Joe’s chest. Muscle rippled and tensed with the effort of warming bare skin.
Horror uncoiled itself within Ben’s gut. If he’d had any doubts about how low the temperature might be, the frozen moisture glistening on the muzzles of the horses painted a deadly picture; his boy had only minutes before he froze to death — if his gunshot wound didn’t kill him first. Even as he watched, Joe’s shivering seemed to lessen, grow less violent and less frequent — a sure sign of a body giving up the fight to warm itself.
Ben couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe. “Please!” His voice cracked. “I‘ll do whatever you ask! Please.”
The man twisted a fist into Joe’s gag and jerked his head back. The boy’s eyes fell shut. “Throw your guns into the ground in front of you. Sidearms, too.”
Ben and his sons hesitated, but did as they were told. Ben glared at Roy. “Roy, do it. My God! Look at him!”
Roy grunted loudly, but complied.
Joe’s captor nodded. Joe sagged, arms falling to his sides, head lolling back. The gunman readjusted his hold on Joe, visibly straining from the dead weight, but kept the muzzle of the pistol tight against his head. “Now just turn around and go on back the way you came!”
He couldn’t turn away and leave Joe here. He couldn’t. “How do we know you’re not going to let him freeze to death?” There had to be a way out of this. Dear God, he was watching his boy die in front of him…
Laughter cracked across the snow. “Cause we want our five thousand, Cartwright! Now, soon as you’re out of sight, we’ll cover your boy right back up and…”
Gunfire erupted with a suddenness that had Ben nearly jumping out of his skin. Joe’s captors jerked and fell from their saddles, taking Joe with them.
Ben flung himself from his saddle. Deep snow clutched at his boots; he fought against it with terrified fury, scrambling and lunging and falling through the snow to get to his son’s side. Gently, he lifted his boy free from the snow-covered ground and pulled him close to his chest. “Joe!” he breathed. He tightened his arms around his son’s body, unable to get close enough.
A few feet away, Adam and Hoss kicked guns out of reach of the kidnappers, both of whom were writhing in pain in the snow. Adam gave their injuries a cursory inspection, before announcing wryly, “They’ll live. Should be healthy enough for a nice long spell in Sheriff Coffee’s jail.”
Cameron Williams emerged from the boulders flanking them, looking sheepish. “I’m sorry for shooting them, Sheriff, Mr. Cartwright. You can arrest me if you need to. But the way I see it, those men were killing that boy just as sure as if they were sticking a knife in him…” He broke off, his eyes, like those of the others, drawn to the sight of a father kneeling in the snow, clasping the unresponsive body of his son to his chest.
“Can you hear me? It’s me, Little Joe. It’s Pa.”
It was a warm, soft, comforting dream, the kind of dream that made Joe want to snuggle back under the blankets and keep on dreaming, even if it meant sleeping through breakfast. He even felt like he was rocking, just like when he was a little boy. It was a strange kind of rocking, though, and the awareness of it had him sleepily opening his eyes.
“Pa?” He frowned at the sound of his own voice; it had come out hoarse, funny. In front of him, the dark mane of his pa’s horse shimmered into view. He was on his pa’s horse, held snug against his pa’s chest, and wrapped up with…
“My coat? Is this my coat?”
Joe turned his face into the familiar wool material and breathed it in. Funny. It smelled like his pa. Usually it smelled like wet wool or horses or the inside of the closet in the corner of the great room at home, but today…today it smelled like his pa. He wondered why.
“Sure… sure coulda used this earlier,” he said, yawning. Vague memories began to drift hazily to the surface, hard, piercing memories full of cold and pain and fear. Deciding he could deal with them later, he turned away from them and settled himself even deeper into his coat.
As sleep reached up to claim him again, his pa drew him closer, and the feather-light brush of his pa’s lips touched him where the collar met his cheek.
The note had come by way of a ranch hand, and Joe had no time to spare.
Leather hissed against leather as he tightened the cinch of his saddle. “I’ll be back by Tuesday, Pa,” he said, checking over buckles and ties. “I hate to leave Hoss and Adam with all that branding tomorrow, but…”
“Your brothers will understand,” Ben broke in. “It isn’t every day a man has a baby named for him, after all.”
Joe shot him a grateful grin and swung up into the saddle, and Ben felt his heart squeeze. Months had passed; Joe’s wound had healed, and still Ben couldn’t help but think how close he had come to never seeing that smile again. It was oddly appropriate that the man who had saved Joe’s life would only now be able to truly appreciate what sort of miracle he had wrought; only now that he was a father himself could Cameron Williams begin to really understand the importance of the gift he had given to a father.
Ben shook himself and handed up a small box wrapped in yellow paper and tied with white ribbon. “Don’t forget young Joseph’s christening gift.”
“Thanks, Pa.” Joe tucked the box safely into a saddle bag, and then gave Ben’s shoulder a final farewell pat. “See you Tuesday.” He wheeled Cochise around and put his heels to the horse’s flanks.
“Joe!” Ben’s shout rang out behind him, and Cochise skidded to a stop.
“I just…I just…” Ben pulled in a steadying breath. “Wait here, son. I forgot something.” He turned away from Joe’s puzzled expression and ran into the house to get what he needed. Grabbing it up, he hurried back outside with it. Never mind that the sun was shining, the air was warm, the grass was green and early summer flowers were in bloom. Never mind that he was a foolish old man. He didn’t care.
“Here,” he said, and thrust it up toward his son. “Take it.” He waited, took a breath, and added, “Please.”
Joe’s eyes softened. Something fleeting passed across his face, and Ben couldn’t be sure if it was mere sympathy or shared pain. But he nodded, and without a word, took the blue and green wool coat out of Ben’s hands and tied it firmly to the back of his saddle. And then he cantered away, out of sight, out of reach…but firmly enveloped by the warmth of a father’s heart.
Much appreciation to our beta reader, freyakendra! You are awesome, girlfriend! Thanks!