Summary: The payroll is missing . . . and so is a son.
Word Count: 17,265
Ben’s call was faint, so parched was his throat. He’d been hollering for his son off and on for hours, but the resulting silence remained the same. Ben Cartwright squirmed within his bonds, anger overriding his better judgment. Blood ran from his injured wrists, mingling with the puddle already drying on the floor, but he didn’t feel any pain. There was no pain from his shoulder either, the bullet still imbedded deep inside his flesh. Ben didn’t feel anything but the overwhelming need to see his youngest son again. Alive.
“Joe! Please son…please answer me.”
They didn’t have to do it. They didn’t have to take his son. He would’ve given them the money anyway. His bluff hadn’t paid off, but at the time, Ben had felt the need to try. Particularly with the way Joe had been watching him. Maybe it was stupid pride, but a man had to defend what was his. That payroll was important to the welfare of the ranch, especially this year, with the winter losses and low market prices. But none of that compared to the welfare of his sons. Everyone who knew him knew that. It must’ve been what the thieves banked on when they grabbed Joe and held a knife to his throat.
Ben didn’t know who they were, didn’t recognize them under the large felt hats and thick bandanas they wore over their faces. But it didn’t matter who they were. All that mattered is what they’d done to his son. Joe was only sixteen, too young to be of any real threat to them. They didn’t have to beat him. They didn’t need to trace the knife’s point across his skin. They didn’t have to take Joe. Ben would’ve paid anyway.
He struggled again, but only succeeded in darkening the already reddened floor. In desperation, Ben ground his boot against the polished floorboards, his anger matching his frustration, overwhelmed by the desire to find his son.
Weak from lost blood and wasted energy, Ben slumped back against the wooden stairs, his head resting against the banister.
“Where are you, son?”
The rope wound around his chest, the heavy loop tightening until even a shallow breath felt like hot knives slicing through him. Joe struggled against the hemp, fought for air, strained to lift his hands in an effort to free himself. There was no relief and he slumped back in despair. Somewhere behind him was the sound of men’s voices, mumbling to each other just low enough that Joe couldn’t make out their words. What were they waiting for?
He’d fought for hours, each attempt to break free only bringing more pain to his battered body. His cries for help had long ago faded into moans, some so pitiful that Joe felt compelled to rear up again, searching for the man in pain. It was too much to comprehend that the sounds were his.
Once more Joe flexed his hands, struggling to reach up far enough to release his bonds. One hand was caught then pushed back against his side and held until another rope was snugged tight. A moan, a sob, and Joe twisted his head from side to side in desperation. His foot kicked out, meeting solidly with someone, and for a moment he reveled silently at the man’s grunt of pain. The relief lasted only a moment before the rope was pulled even tighter.
“Why? Why are you doing this to me?”
Joe knew his voice was plaintive at best, a whimpering plea from a boy. Not a man like he wanted to be, but a boy. A boy who was trapped. Lost. Alone.
Joe ached for the sound of his father’s voice, the feel of his hand. Instead, he heard only the deep muttering of the men around him, their voices louder but the words unclear. For the life of him, Joe couldn’t understand why they’d caught and held him. Sitting on the hard ground, back pushed tight against the corral post, he strained again to loosen the rope. His head hurt, the pain spiking as he struggled to remember, fought back the wave of nausea, the cloud of confusion. But he couldn’t recall anything after coming down the stairs, arms full of saddlebags and bedrolls. They were going somewhere, he and Pa. Meeting someone.
“Let me go. Please let me go.”
Twisting against the thick strands that wound around and held him to the post, Joe felt hot tears gather in the corner of his eyes. He couldn’t stand the thought that these thugs would see him like this. As a boy and not a man. But he couldn’t stop what nature had started, and the frustration only caused him to fight harder. What happened? Where was Pa?
“Let me go!”
He heard a sound behind him just before the toe of a boot caught him low in the side. Joe doubled over, struggling to keep his tenuous hold on consciousness. Someone grabbed him by the hair, pulling his head back, but he couldn’t make out his attacker. Didn’t have time before a hand slapped his face, first one side then the other. Blood flowed from above his eye then his lip before the man stopped. Joe’s eyes were closed but he couldn’t shut out the sound of the evil laughter.
“Pretty boy isn’t so pretty anymore. Let’s take him back to show his Pa one more time. Maybe that’ll change his mind.”
“Nah, too much work,” a voice answered. “Make him scream instead. That’ll make the old man squirm.”
Panting for breath, Joe strained against his bonds only to have his head yanked back again. This time there was the feel of raw hemp, its course bond draped around his neck then pulled taut. Flashes of light exploded in front of his eyes then everything went black.
“We’ve got it boys. Let’s get out of here.”
“Money in there?”
“Whooeeee, let me take a look at that, will you?”
“Here. Gonna make a nice split, boys. Keep us in the chips for awhile.”
“How’d you make Cartwright give it up?”
“Convinced him we’d make a trade.”
“For the sake of a son, huh?”
“Stupid old man.”
“So, what about the kid?”
“But they’ll find him.”
“Doesn’t matter, he ain’t gonna last much longer anyway, not trussed up out here in the dark. Nobody around and his pa won’t be getting loose anytime soon. By the time someone does find him, we’ll be up in the high country headed for Mexico.”
“Don’t seem right to leave him here alive. He could talk.”
“Nothing he can tell, if he remembers anything. It’s why I told you to keep covered. Four men with bandanas over their faces isn’t much to go on. ”
“Still feel better if there was no one left to talk at all.”
“You kill him outright, then the law will be after us.”
“Law will be after us anyway. Hell, you shot the old man.”
“Only ‘cause I had to. Now listen here, you trusted me this far, so listen to me now. Leave the kid where he’s at and let’s get out of here.”
“Okay, you’re right, we’re with you. Long as you don’t mind if I leave a few more bruises on him before we go.”
“Just hurry up. Storm’s comin’ in and we’d do well to get on the trail and hope there’s some rain to hide our tracks.”
“Sure thing boss. Anyway, that should do him. If he ever does get out of those ropes, he won’t be talkin’ anytime soon.”
“Good. Now let’s ride.”
Squirming slightly, Joe opened his eyes to darkness. Everything hurt. Head, arms, neck, eye. The list ran through his brain like water. Pain flowed over and through him, taking his breath away.
Head down, Joe struggled against the ropes that bound him.
“What the hell…”
When the first brief moments of consciousness and pain subsided, Joe tried to focus on remembering where he was and what happened. Quiet and dark, it was difficult to see anything that would identify his surroundings. And why was he tied up?
A rustling to his right was the only answer to his plea. It was the first clue that really pierced through the confusion. He was outside. Tied to a post. It was thick and sturdy, probably one of the large corrals near the barn, but he couldn’t identify exactly where.
The one thing Joe knew for certain, he was alone. It took a few more minutes before memories began to filter in. There had been men holding him. Beating him. They’d dragged him from the house, leaving his pa bleeding on the floor by the stairs. Joe knew he’d blacked out at some point, waking to find himself tied to a post. More beating…ropes pulled tight… a man’s laugh. Later, there had been voices above and around him, something about money. The payroll…
That’s it! They’d been looking for the payroll. Pa had refused to give them the money, especially after Joe had stared hard at him from where the big man had knocked him to the floor. It was probably the same man that shot his pa. That’s why Pa was bleeding… that’s why they had dragged him out the door away from his pa.
But that had been hours ago. If they left, then they must have the money now, and that meant Pa must have given in, or given up. Or worse…
“Pa. Oh God! Please…please. Pa!”
Joe knew his voice couldn’t be carrying far, but he couldn’t stop himself from crying out. The rope cut into his neck as he strained to call for his father again.
He didn’t know how long he repeated the cry. Pain radiated through Joe’s body, and still he called. Couldn’t stop until his tongue was swollen in his mouth, head pounding, blood making his hands slippery from where he pulled against his bonds. The first drops of rain were pooling around him when Joe finally slumped against the ropes, his ragged breath echoing in the empty space around him. Defeated in a place much worse than anything physical, Joe didn’t try to stop the tears. He was beaten. Alone. But worse, he felt that he’d lost his pa forever.
“Oh Pa… what…what have I done?”
Thunder rumbled in the distance, but Joe didn’t move. His ragged breaths slowed as he lost consciousness.
Ben opened his eyes, slowly surveying his home, time suspended as he waited for someone to come. He’d hollered, pounded, pulled, strained, even cried. There was nothing he could do, nothing he hadn’t tried to get free. And the emotions that continued to wash over him, from frustration to anger, fear to despair were wearing him down. His son was out there somewhere. Hurt. Alone. Joe needed him, and here he was trussed up against the banister like an errant dog.
If only Adam or Hoss would ride in. But they wouldn’t. Ben knew that it would be at least tomorrow morning before anyone would really worry about their absence. And with most of his neighbors working together, there was little hope that someone would drop by.
Arching his back with the sudden burning pain from his shoulder, Ben tried to breathe through the worst of it. His fever was building, infection setting in. It didn’t worry him, at least not for himself. But what if he was in bad shape by the time help arrived? How would he be able to tell them what happened, or how long Joe had been missing? And in the next moment Ben scoffed at himself. What difference would that make? There wasn’t much for him to tell. He didn’t know where Joe was, where those men had taken him or even if his son was still alive. All he knew was that this whole thing was his fault. If only he could go back, do things differently. .
The clock chimed next to the door pulling Ben from his thoughts. It was dark now, too dark to see the clock. No lamps lit the room, no fire burned cheerily in the large fireplace. There was nothing here to make the place feel like home. But it was home, and Ben prayed that Joe would make it back.
He counted: One…Two…Three.
Three o’clock. Too many hours since he walked out of the kitchen and into hell.
Arms laden with bedrolls and saddlebags, Joe had been coming down the stairs when Ben stepped around the corner. Everything happened so fast it was hard to remember what went first. Two men burst in the front door, one came up behind him from the kitchen, and another from the side door. Before Joe could drop his burdens, the big man was there, hitting the boy twice then shoving him against the fireplace. Joe was out the minute his head hit the rock wall, and Ben raced across the room to catch his son. The bark of a gun sounded out of place in the middle of his home, but Ben didn’t feel the pain of the bullet until later. The smoke from the gun settled as he kept moving, ignoring the calls of the men until one of them grabbed hold of his vest and yanked him back.
“What do you want?”
The man in charge stepped over Joe to stand in front of Ben.
“Your payroll. Hand it over.”
And that was when Ben made his mistake. Why hadn’t he just handed it over?
What could that money have possibly meant when compared to the safety of his son? Instead he stalled, bluffed, tried to convince the men that he didn’t have the cash at the house, worried that if he handed over the money, they’d be shot down anyway. But it didn’t help to hold out. He kept the men talking too long, until Joe was awake and watching him, urging him on with those expressive looks of his. But Joe was young, hot-headed and foolish.
And Ben was old and stupid.
“Why didn’t I just give them the money?”
He would’ve held his head in his hands had he been able to move them. Instead, Ben pitched forward in his grief as he relived the rest of the scene.
Joe being pulled up by the big man; large hands wrapped around his son’s neck as the behemoth lifted him off his feet only to throw him down to the floor. Then he was pulled up again, the big man holding Joe easily with one arm. Ben had watched in horror as the man held a knife in the other hand, bringing the point to Joe’s neck where the blade was drawn lightly downward, drawing a bright line of blood. Ben’s “no!” was lost in the deep throated laugh of the large man as he dropped the knife, only to release the boy, then pull him back up again. Joe was like a mouse in the hands of a large cat as he was pummeled and kicked repeatedly. And the whole time, two other men held Ben’s arms as he fought, then cried out for mercy. There was none. Only more of the sadistic abuse until Joe was bloody and unconscious, and the devils cruelly dragged his boy through the front door and out of Ben’s sight.
It was later, after Joe had been outside, after Ben could hear his son calling for him, that the big man finally came back and gave him a second chance. By that time Ben was trussed up against the banister, his shoulder throbbing in pain, his heart breaking over the hand fate had dealt. It didn’t take any convincing; Ben was waiting to hand over the money. But the big man seemed to revel in the torture – drawing out the offer, making the trade, even pretending to have to look for the satchel after Ben gave him instructions on where to find the payroll. It was all part of a game the big man seemed to be playing, a game of making Ben suffer while listening to his son suffer. It was a game Ben had every intention of playing again, only this time, there would be a different cast, and he wouldn’t be the pawn.
When the man finally collected his loot and walked slowly to the door, he turned one last time to stare at Ben. There was no way of knowing, behind the mask, but Ben felt sure the man was silently laughing at him. And then the door was shut, and he was left to wait for Joe’s return.
It didn’t come.
Joe didn’t come.
Ben groaned as the clock struck Four.
“Why didn’t I give them the money?”
Hoss walked through camp, his head turning from side to side as he searched for his brother. They had been riding together most of the morning, but Adam had left him about an hour earlier, intent on checking in with one of the other foremen. It was roundup time, and most of the ranches were well represented this year, even though the pickings looked lean. Winter had been tough along the eastern Sierras, the snow deep, the cold hanging on late into the spring. Hoss knew his father was worried. They all were. It looked like this could be a rough year for all of them.
Right now, Hoss was worried about something more personal. They’d been expecting his father and younger brother last night, along with pay for the hands. It wasn’t like the men would have any place to spend their earnings out here on the range, but the Cartwrights were known for their honesty and fairness. If they promised to pay their men on a certain day, then that’s when those men would be paid. It was the kind of business practice that kept good hands on the payroll, men who were loyal and hardworking. It was a practice that Ben Cartwright had no intention of changing. Which made today all the more difficult to accept.
Hoss knew that his pa had planned to be back the previous evening. In fact, he’d made it clear that he and Little Joe would be expecting something decent for supper when they returned, leaving HopSing with strict instructions to save them a generous helping of whatever he concocted. But the dishes had been washed and stacked long after sunset, with no sign of the oldest and youngest Cartwright. Hoss wanted to ride out then and there, but Adam had insisted that they’d probably just been delayed in town, either at the bank or the general store. He’d continued to insist even after breakfast, and well into the morning, right up to the time that he’d ridden off in search of their neighbor, Sam Cates. But Hoss knew his brother wasn’t any more convinced than he was.
Rounding the edge of the chuck wagon, Hoss finally caught sight of Adam. His older brother was busy unsaddling the cow pony he’d been riding all morning, transferring the gear to his regular mount. Hoss stepped past him, pausing only a moment before leading his own horse over and checking the cinch on Chubb’s saddle.
“Where are you going?” Adam questioned testily.
Hoss wasn’t fazed by the tone of his brother’s voice. He knew that Adam was worried about their missing family.
“Same place you are, Adam. To find Pa and Joe.”
“What about the roundup?”
“Isn’t that why you was talkn’ to Cates?”
Adam’s quick nod was answer enough. Hoss adjusted the saddle then gathered up the reins. There was no further conversation as the brothers mounted up and rode out of camp toward home.
The ride was quiet, hours passed with neither brother willing to put words to his concern. Yet they were anything but complacent. By tacit consent, Hoss watched for signs on the ground while Adam kept his focus on the skyline. What they saw was normal scenery. Nothing unusual. Nothing out of the ordinary.
Mile after mile, the brothers made their way back to the ranch, mentally cataloging possible reasons for Ben and Joe’s delay, each hoping there was a simple explanation but imagining the worse.
When they finally reached the main road, each urged his mount to greater speed and both were at a full gallop by the time the ranch house came into view. They didn’t slow, however, until they rounded the corner of the barn. Hoss figured that Ben would have their hide if he saw them ride up at Joe’s normal pace. Adam didn’t give the matter a second thought. For all the silence during their ride, the two were a mass of nervous energy when they pulled up in front of the house.
Their voices united in both tenor and strength, the two brothers dismounting and hurrying toward the front door. The quiet was overwhelming, but the sight of Ben’s horse in the front corral was enough to confirm their fears. Pa was still here and something was wrong.
Adam pushed through first, his deep-throated “Pa” dying on his lips as he stopped in his tracks. Hoss almost fell, catching himself only as Adam lurched forward.
Hoss stumbled in his haste; pushing against the round table at the same instant he recognized the disarray of the room. Adam knelt down, his hands trembling as he laid a hand on Ben’s chest.
“Looks like he’s been shot.”
“Yeah. Can you get these ropes off?”
Adam jumped up and ran to the buffet. Grabbing a bottle and several towels, he raced back as Hoss pulled out his knife and cut through the rope that twined around their father. Halfway there, Adam stopped as if an invisible hand reached out to snag him.
“Joe? Little Joe, where are you? Joe!”
Hoss glanced up.
Adam crossed the last few feet, and as his eyes scoured the area for any sign of his youngest brother, slid to the floor just in time to catch Ben as he slumped forward. The ropes released, there was nothing to hold him upright, nothing but the strong arms of his oldest son.
Hoss picked up his knife again, carefully slicing Ben’s vest and shirt, pulling both back to reveal the wound. It only took a moment to determine that the bullet was still there, and it didn’t look good.
“We need the doctor.”
“We need to find Joe.”
“Gotta get Pa upstairs.”
“And make sure there’s no one else still around.”
“Joe. Joe comes first.”
Their thoughts jumbled but on the same course, the brothers worked smoothly together, instinctively prioritizing their next moves. Hoss worked on getting the ropes off Ben’s hands while Adam tried to rouse their father. When that didn’t work, he folded a cloth and pressed it to Ben’s shoulder, protecting the wound as best he could until they could do more.
“He’s running a fever.”
“Yeah. Color don’t look too good either.”
Working swiftly, Hoss pulled the final rope away, its ends spattered with blood. They both stopped to stare at damaged wrists and forearms as Hoss pulled Ben’s arms gently from the post, heads shaking at the overwhelming sight.
“My God,” whispered Adam.
Without warning, Hoss leaned down and gathered Ben into his arms as if he were Little Joe. Staggering only slightly under the weight, he stood and headed up the stairs.
Adam didn’t need to be told twice. He was already moving about the room, looking for clues, searching for their brother.
Into the spare room, the kitchen, back out the front door, Adam searched. Heart racing, he called over and over, but there was no answer. Back in the house, he could hear Hoss moving around upstairs.
“Anything?” He shouted.
“I’ll check the barn.”
Adam ran, startling the horses with his mad dash across the yard. In and out of the stalls he searched and hollered. The loft, the tack room, every corner was checked but there was no sign of his brother.
“My God, Joe, where are you?”
Standing at the door, Adam scrubbed the back of his neck, looking for sign of a struggle, footprints, anything that would give him a clue. There was nothing. The rain had washed away anything that might’ve helped find his brother. There were so many more places to search. The back corrals, near pasture, the tree line. But there was Pa, desperately needing a doctor. And there were only two of them.
“Damn. Should’ve brought some hands back with us.”
Adam bowed his head for a moment then headed back to the house, this time making a slightly slower trek across the yard. He continued to look around, calling out several times before pulling the door closed behind him. Grabbing the bottle still waiting on the round table, Adam tipped the bottle up until the whiskey burnt a hot trail down his throat. It was when he brought the bottle away from his lips that he caught sight of the floorboards near the stairs. Grooves, resembling the heel of a boot, were ground into the floor near the stairway. Put there by his father’s boots. Adam swore. Then, bottle in hand, he took the stairs two at a time. Hoss was waiting for him.
“What happened here, Adam?”
“You mean they got the payroll, and took Joe too?”
“Looks that way.”
“Hostage I guess.” Adam frowned. “I hope.”
Adam was eyeing his father, grateful that Hoss had already cleaned the wound and settled Ben in his bed. He looked a bit cleaner, but no more responsive. Stepping closer, Adam laid a hand gently on his pa’s forehead and was quietly contemplating the situation when Hoss spoke.
“I’m going for the doctor. I’ll stop for the Sheriff before I head back.”
“Hurry, Hoss. We need to look for Joe! But he could be miles from here by now, and with Pa… We’ll have to wait until you get back. Just hurry.”
“On my way.”
Hoss glanced back before hurrying through the door. Adam could hear his boots clomping down the stairs followed by the thud of the front door. Moments later, Chubb was racing out of the yard while Adam prayed that they’d both have a safe but fast ride.
Bleary eyes opened, leisurely examining the landscape. Sun was up. The day was probably half gone from the looks of it. Grass was drying, and the sunlight was bright, not the faint pink glow of sunrise, but the brilliant light of mid-day. Squinting with his one good eye against the glare, he could make out a stand of ponderosa pines across the small meadow. Overhead, a hawk cried, a distinct contrast to the gentle sound of the wind in the pines. But there was nothing else. No familiar sounds of daily ranch routines. No laughing voices. No pounding hooves or hint of rescue. No father’s calls. There was nothing.
No sound escaped, his voice grown faint from shouting. His tongue slid slowly along parched lips, bringing little relief. Joe’s neck burned from the rough rope, arms still bound tightly around the post behind him, his hands numb after hours in that position. Skin chafed from clothes still wet from the night before. His ribs hurt making it hard to breathe, and occasional flashes of white-hot pain raced through his shoulders, causing his vision to blur and sweat to break out on his brow.
Frustration and anger had long ago burnt out, leaving Joe in despair. Never before had he been so helpless. His pa was gone, Joe was sure of it. The bullet had found its mark, dark red blood already pooling below his father’s body when they dragged Joe through the door and into the yard. Too many hours had passed by now. There was no hope. How could they go on without Pa?
Licking his lips, Joe slumped forward. There was no use trying to focus on the landscape, it only blurred and faded as his eyes filled. Pa. They killed his… He’d get them. This wasn’t over, not by a long shot. Joe didn’t know how but he was going to get out of this, and then he’d find them. Every last one of them. Bandanas or not, he’d find them. And kill them.
Birds continued to chirp while a hawk dipped and swooped lazily overhead. Somewhere in the distance a horse neighed. Joe didn’t respond, focusing instead on his own breathing. Slow, deep breaths, in and out. Calm. He had to stay calm and hang on until Adam and Hoss found him. He knew they would, eventually, and damned if he wouldn’t be hanging on when they arrived. He had a job to do. For Pa.
No measure of time, not even the movement of the sun helped Joe judge the passing minutes. His left eye was swollen almost shut, and he was so thirsty it was hard to concentrate on anything else. And so he drifted, his body shutting down, his mind escaping into a quiet place of dreams and memories. At once he was sitting near a stream, relaxing in the warm sun as his line drifted in the current. Hoss hollered for him, but Joe refused to open his eyes. Then he was in the barn, slowly brushing Cochise until the black and white coat gleamed with the effort. From the house he could hear Adam calling him, demanding to be heard, but Joe refused to break the rhythm. He was brushing his horse while waiting for Pa to come home; Adam would have to wait.
The sun slipped past its zenith while Joe sat against the post, his mind wandering between truth and reality. As time passed, Pa was his only clear focus. He had to wait for Pa. He had a job to do. And he wanted, no needed… Pa.
Adam busied himself in Ben’s room for the first half hour then spent the next half hour between there and the kitchen. By the end of that time, he’d cleaned all the blood from Ben’s shoulder and arm, gathered everything he could think the doctor might want, started a fire in Ben’s room and made soup for the time his father would be awake and hungry. And in all that time, Ben hadn’t stirred.
Every noise caused Adam to stop, peering around corners in the hope that Little Joe would be there. Each time he felt the frustration rise when he found nothing but empty space.
‘Joe, where are you?’
Adam sat down beside the bed and slowly picked up his father’s hand. Gently spreading salve over the torn skin around the wrist, he carefully wrapped it with a bandage then reached for the other hand. It was hard to look at, especially considering what his father must have been thinking while trying to escape. Or so Adam assumed. There was no real evidence to suggest what had happened, other than a house that had been ransacked, a missing brother and a severely injured father. It just stood to reason that Ben had been trying to get loose to either help or find Joe. Staring his pa’s bandaged wrists, Adam wished fervently that he could do the same.
As the hours passed, Adam spent most his time perched on a chair by the window, dividing his focus between watching his father and looking for his brothers. He knew it was too early for Hoss to be back, but there was always the chance that Joe would wander into the yard. It was a slim chance, but Adam prayed that it would happen.
The fire popped and Adam startled at the sound. No movement from the bed, nothing in the yard. Adam clenched his fist, fighting the urge to run downstairs and out of the house. He needed to find Joe. He wished for Hop Sing’s presence, or one of the ranch hands. Even a neighbor stopping by would be a godsend. But there was no one. Nothing. Just the empty silence of a large ranch removed from the bustle of folks living nearby. Struggling to control his emotions, Adam got up to wander about the room again, checking the fire, rearranging bandages, putting another cool cloth on his father’s brow, anything to fill the time. Standing over his father, Adam finally crossed his arms then lifted one hand to rub his eyes. He attempted to ease the tension from his forehead, wipe this horrible day from his mind.
The voice was soft, barely audible, but Adam knew the deep timbre of his father’s tone.
“Where…where is he?”
Adam knew immediately who the ‘he’ was, knew before he spoke that Pa already knew the answer.
“We don’t know. Couldn’t find any sign of him. What happened, Pa?”
“Men… surprised us… wanted the…payroll. I…didn’t…I didn’t…”
Ben started to thrash about, pulling blankets off and moving around until Adam spotted blood on the bandages.
“Easy, Pa, easy. We can talk about this later.”
Adam reached for the glass of water waiting on a small table. Carefully slipping an arm behind his father, he tipped the glass up so that Ben could take a few sips. Resting back against his pillows, Ben looked around anxiously.
“Joe. Where’s Joe?”
Adam frowned; worry mounting at his father’s loss of context.
“We couldn’t find him, Pa.”
“They…took him. Dragged him…took him away…from me.”
Ben looked around the room, eyes straining to see past Adam.
“Where’s Joe? Is Joe…back?”
Adam leaned over his father, gently straightening the blankets and resting one hand on Ben’s good shoulder.
“It’s okay, Pa. Just rest. Hoss will be here soon. Joe will be fine.”
Ben’s eyes slid closed, as if soothed by the words from his oldest, not questioning their validity. Within minutes, his breathing had deepened. Adam watched until he was certain that his pa was not unconscious, but merely asleep. Sinking into the bedside chair, Adam cradled his head in hands still shaking.
Shadows lengthened by the time Hoss rode into the yard, the blue grey cast of light filtering through rain-laden clouds. Another storm was moving in.
It had been a fast trip, but any ride from the Ponderosa to Virginia City and back took considerable time. Wasn’t an easy pill to swallow, when you had someone depending on you for help, but that was the price you paid for living out here; there wasn’t a neighbor on every corner, quick to lend a hand when help was needed.
Quick out of the saddle, Hoss flipped Chubb’s reins around the hitching post and reached for the doctor’s horse. Paul Martin was already out of the saddle and untying his bag, fingers fumbling with the leather knots. Normally one to use his buggy, Hoss was grateful the doctor had been willing to ride this time.
“I’ll be right behind you, Hoss.”
Wasting no time, Hoss lunged ahead, hitting the door at a run. He took the stairs two at a time, his heavy boots beating a steady rhythm on the wooden steps. There was no need to holler ahead, Adam was waiting in the hallway.
“He’s still with us. Where’s the doctor?”
“Right here, Adam.”
Doc Martin pushed past the two, already taking in the position and appearance of his patient.
“No sign of him, Hoss. I’ve made a couple quick trips to the barn, but…”
“Move that light closer, Hoss. Adam, lay my instruments out on that table.”
Doc Martin was busy checking Ben’s pulse, carefully pulling back bandages to examine each wound.
“We’re going to have to get this bullet out, but I’d like to get some fluid in him first. See how his skin looks, here. He’s been without water for too long.”
“What about his fever, Doc?”
“Yes, Adam, that’s a concern. Thankfully it isn’t as high as it could be. Has he been awake at all?”
Adam moved closer, one hand dropping gently to rest on his father’s leg.
“For a couple minutes. He managed a few sips of water, but that’s all.”
“Did he say anything about Joe?”
Hoss looked almost excited until Adam shook his head slightly.
“Okay, let’s see if we can get him awake.”
“Doc? Do you need us?”
Paul was fully aware of the situation, Hoss having made a quick report as they stopped by Sheriff Coffee’s office. Looking over his shoulder to study them for a moment, it was clear that he was as worried for their brother as for their father.
“Go. Find the boy, and get him back here. If I know Ben Cartwright, I know that Joe’s presence will be the best cure.”
“What about gettin’ that bullet out, Doc? Won’t you need some help holdin’ him?” Hoss worried.
“Yes, but not yet. I’ll get some water in him. You go find your brother.”
Needing no further encouragement, Hoss turned, following Adam down the stairs. They were gathering reins and climbing into saddles before Hoss spoke up.
“Which way, Adam?”
“You go north, I’ll head south. We’ll meet back here in an hour. By then we’ll be needing lanterns, but maybe the sheriff will be here to help.”
“If we haven’t found him…”
Adam couldn’t work an answer past the lump in his throat. Instead, he turned Sport south and urged his mount into a trot.
Around corrals, through trees, past haystacks and outbuildings, Adam threaded his way through the area for the next hour, eyes strained from peering through shadows at everything that moved; voice hoarse from calling Joe’s name. Time was almost up, and he’d covered every place he could think of. His last stop was the wild horse pen at the edge of the meadow behind the barn. After that, it would be a matter of broadening their search, but it was almost dark, and Joe could be anywhere by now.
Pulling up for a minute, Adam turned in his saddle, looking behind and to each side, making certain he hadn’t overlooked something. He couldn’t bear the thought that he might miss a sign, tracks, anything that would lead them to Joe. But there was nothing. Just open space and sounds of the day coming to a close. The last bird call, a rabbit moving through the grass, wind whistling in the trees. And then, the first fat raindrops as the dark clouds settled down around him.
Heading out to the last pen, Adam moved slow, grateful when the storm seemed to hold off and the rain didn’t get any worse. Clenching the reins, it was all he could do not to holler in frustration. Working hard to keep his emotions in check, Adam pulled up next to the large corral and dismounted, walking slowly around the enclosure in the twilight. Adam was halfway around the circle he tripped, barely catching himself before hitting the ground. In that awkward moment of being half up and half down, Adam realized with searing clarity that he was staring at a pair of familiar boots.
“Joe. Oh my God…Joe.”
The words were mere breaths of sound against the empty space. Dropping to his knees, hands grabbing for his brother, praying to find some sign of life. This time his voice was full.
“Joe. Come on kid, don’t do this to me. Joe!”
Nothing. No sound, no movement. Ripping off his hat, Adam dropped his head to Joe’s chest, holding his own breath while he waited. There. Faint. One beat, and then another.
Eyes accustomed to the twilight, Adam could make out the rope wound around his brother’s body. Joe’s arms were held tight to his sides, hands pulled together behind his back, neck strapped firmly to the post behind him. Adam cursed, low and long. Knife in hand, he sawed at the damp rope, making little headway with his hands shaking the way they were. Cursing again, at the situation, the thugs that had done this, at the weather itself, Adam finally sat back on his heels and pulled out his revolver. Praying that Sport wouldn’t bolt, he raised the gun over his head and squeezed the trigger three times.
Slipping the revolver back into its holster, Adam scooted around to Joe’s side, holding his brother’s head with one hand while he worked on the rope with the other. Long minutes passed, no way to measure the time, but Adam knew it was taking too long. Then Hoss hollered from a distance and Adam paused to fire off another shot. Suddenly his larger than life brother was there beside him, their curses blending together as they fought the rope, both keenly aware that the boy between them hadn’t moved.
With a soft snap, the rope around Joe’s neck dropped away, his head sagging forward. In the same instant, Adam straddled Joe’s legs, supporting his brother’s upper body as Hoss worked on the other ropes.
“Dadburn it, Adam. They tied his hands before they put him up to this post. I’m gonna cut the long ropes, but I’m scared to cut so close to his wrists with these ropes this wet.”
“Do what you have to. Just get him off this post!”
When Hoss finally sawed through the last strand, Joe’s limp body slumped forward into Adam’s waiting arms. There was a ‘woof’ as if Joe let out a breath, a low groan then silence. The world stood still as Adam held his brother close, counting the beats of Joe’s heart against his own chest. Hoss laid a large hand on Joe’s back, as if he too needed reassurance that their little brother was still with them. The three huddled there on the ground as minutes slipped away.
A sudden flash of light reminded them that there was work left to do.
“How are we going to get him home?”
Adam tilted his head back, startled at the storm now upon them. Looking from Joe to Hoss and back, he quickly ran through every option before settling on a plan.
“Get him on my horse, and I’ll ride behind him. It won’t be easy, but we need to get him home. We’ll deal with the rest of these ropes when we have some light to work with.”
As if Hoss read his mind, Sport was immediately pulled into position where strong arms could boost an unconscious Joe into the saddle. Then Adam climbed up to once again wrap his arms around his brother, this time from behind. He was already riding toward the house when Hoss came up beside him. Side by side, they slowly made their way home.
As if he’d been waiting, Paul Martin rushed out the front door to meet the brothers. The rain had started in earnest making Adam especially grateful to the good doctor.
“He’s alive. But we need to get him warm.”
Paul hurried back into the house as Hoss reached up for Joe, taking the kid into his arms as if he were a child. Adam slipped out of the saddle, running ahead to shove the table away from the fireplace and move the settee into its place. Grabbing the poker, he pushed the logs around then placed more wood on the growing fire. Hoss had Joe in the middle of the settee, supporting him with one arm and trying to work the ropes loose from the kid’s bloody wrists. It only took a moment for Adam to slide into place, gathering Joe to him giving Hoss use of both hands.
“Hold him still, Adam. I’ve gotta cut ‘em and I sure don’t want to hurt Joe…”
“Anymore than he already is.” Adam finished for him.
It took only a moment with the sharp knife, now that Hoss could clearly see where to cut. Arms finally released, Joe moaned, the pain tangible. Adam and Hoss didn’t pause, working together quickly to peel wet, bloody, torn clothing from their younger brother. With his clothes in a heap on the floor, they quickly wrapped Joe in the blankets that Paul had set out and laid him down on the settee. Other than the low moan, Joe remained quiet, though his eyes moved slowly under closed lids.
It was in that moment, when Adam really looked at Joe that he noticed the line of blood tracking down his brother’s throat. Time stood still as Adam fought to overcome the sudden flash of white hot anger. Kicking the low table as he moved past, he swore under his breath as he furiously wrung the thick white towel between his hands. It was all he could do not to hit something.
“Let me check him over.”
Adam was grateful for Paul’s steady voice, and used the interruption to get control of himself. Squatting near Joe’s head, he gently laid a hand on the familiar curls.
“What about Pa?”
“His color is looking better, but one of you should go sit with him in case he comes to.”
Adam knew that Hoss was looking at him, but couldn’t return his brother’s gaze. Instead, he focused on toweling Joe’s hair dry, then wetting another towel to gently wipe the boy’s swollen face. Hoss stood there a moment before going quietly up the stairs to their pa.
Paul and Adam worked together, until both were satisfied that there were no broken bones, than Paul stitched the worst of the cuts. Finally finished with the painstaking job, Paul wiped his hands while studying his patient closely.
“He has three or four broken ribs, and I’m not happy with his breathing. I’m worried about this bump on his head, but most important is the exposure. He’s been out there quite awhile.”
“Probably since yesterday.” Adam murmured. “What about his eye?”
“From what I can tell, it’s the tissue around the eye that’s damaged. But we’ll have to wait until he’s awake to know for sure. Only Joe will be able to tell us if he has trouble seeing.”
Adam rubbed his temple, working hard to keep his temper in check.
“What else can we do?”
“I’ve done all I can for him right now. I expect he’ll come around before long. Keep him warm. Get him to drink water, some soup if he’s up to it.”
“What about moving him up to his bed?”
“I’d like to keep him as still as possible until he’s been warm for a while. When Hoss comes back down, you two could probably take him upstairs and get him settled in bed.”
“I’m going after the bullet now, with Hoss’ help.”
“Call if you need me.”
With a nod and a sigh, Paul headed up the stairs.
The fire crackled and the room quieted as Adam turned back to watch Joe sleep. The kid’s curly brown hair was a stark contrast to the white pillowcase, and the red welts and purple bruises covered a too-pale face. His eyes flicked past and then back to the cut on Joe’s throat, the ugly wound a vicious example of what his brother had been subjected to.
Slowly tucking in edges of the comforter, Adam found himself clenching hands that didn’t know what to do with themselves. Instinct pushed anger to the forefront. Anger at the men who would do this to a young man teetering on the edge of adulthood. Anger at a world that allowed men of evil to wander around free. Didn’t they know their own strength? Had they no compassion or kindness in their dark souls?
A growl of frustration burst from him, the sound of it startling even to Adam’s ears. But it was the moan from beneath his hands that brought the older brother back into the moment.
“Joe? Little Joe. Can you hear me?”
“Pa? Where are…Pa?”
In a voice so faint that Adam had to lean closer to hear, Joe called for his father. Hands reached up to be clasped and held by other hands, the two joined but not truly aware.
“Pa. I need…where are you…Pa…”
“He’s here, Joe. Right upstairs. Let’s get you something to drink now, and you can see Pa later.”
Even as Adam gently squeezed Joe’s hands within his own, he could feel them go limp as Joe slipped away. It took too many seconds for Adam to be sure that the kid was unconscious and not… It was too much to contemplate and Adam steered his thoughts away from the notion as he gently laid Joe’s hands back on the blankets. Checking the bandages around his brother’s wrists, Adam was startled to see a streak of red marring the white cloth.
Taking his time to clean and rebandage the rope burns, Adam was struck by the quiet that had descended over the ranch. His focus was split between watching over Joe and staring up the stairs, concerned for his pa and what he was enduring. Yet the ticking of the clock and the occasional crackle of the fire gave a familiar feel to the room. It was a severe contrast to the thoughts that plagued him.
Unaware that his brow furrowed in anger, eyes darkening as he stared at the fire, hands clasped, Adam hunched forward in the straight back chair he’d positioned next to his brother. Waiting. Waiting for the doctor, for the sheriff, for his brother to wake up, for the opportunity to mount his horse and follow his instinct. But he couldn’t leave, not yet. So while Adam waited, he spent his time planning. Just exactly what he would do when they finally tracked down the evil bastards who dared to hurt his family.
Hoss walked slowly down the steps, eyes taking in the quiet scene yet fully aware of the tension in his older brother’s shoulders. Adam had one of the dining room chairs next to the settee, basin and bandages scattered on the floor beside him. Maybe it was the sound of his boots on the steps that caused Adam to turn, tipping the chair as he stood up.
“Doc will be down in a bit. He got the bullet out. Said Pa lost a lot of blood and is pretty darn weak. There’s some infection ‘cause of that bullet being in there so long, and he’s still fightin’ the fever. But he thinks Pa will be all right if he gets lots of rest and takes it easy.”
Adam’s expression went from guarded to worried and back to guarded.
“He’ll be asking for Joe.”
“Yeah. Doc gave him some medicine so he’ll sleep for a while, but I reckon you’re right. How’s Joe doin’?” Hoss nodded toward their younger brother.
“He came around once. Didn’t stay awake long enough to answer any questions, or get anything to drink.”
“Doc said we really need to get some water in him.”
“I know that, Hoss. But…”
Hoss stepped closer, one hand on his brother’s back as they both bent over the settee. Joe was looking up at them. His lips moved but no sound came out, just a low moan as he tried to move. Adam leaned closer, his hand stilling the movement.
“Joe? You with us?”
“Ad… Adam? Hoss?”
The voice was so faint, the two brothers leaned even closer to hear.
“Yeah, Joe. We’re both here. You just stay still now while ol’ Hoss gets you a drink.”
Hoss squeezed Adam’s shoulder as he stepped away. It only took a moment to fill a glass from the pitcher. By the time he turned back, Adam was seated on the chair again, one hand resting on Joe’s forehead, the other wrapped around Joe’s hand.
“Here, let’s set you up a bit.”
Handing Adam the glass, Hoss slipped an arm behind Joe’s shoulders to gently raise his little brother. Adam held the glass, urging Joe to take first one then two sips. That was all they managed before Joe made it clear that he’d had enough. Back against the pillows, his eyes open marginally wider, Joe looked back and forth between his brothers.
“You’re home, Joe. You’re safe.”
Joe didn’t seem to hear them, his eyes still searching.
“No, Joe. No. Pa’s upstairs and he’s going to be fine.”
“Pa… I’m…sorry. I…tried…”
Joe’s eyes drifted closed and Hoss sighed as moisture trickled from them.
Adam must have noticed too.
“Let’s get him upstairs, Hoss. Maybe he’ll rest better there.”
As Hoss picked up his little brother, he was struck by the boy’s size. Boy. He was nearly a man. Yet his lithe frame fit easily into Hoss’ arms. Holding Joe close, he headed for the stairs, followed by Adam, but halfway up the steps they were surprised by a fervent knock on the front door. Hoss stopped to look back at his brother.
“Did you hear…horses?”
“No, I didn’t hear anything. You get Joe upstairs and I’ll see who it is.”
Adam was already heading back down by the time Hoss got to the upper hall. Hurrying to Joe’s room, anxious to help Adam if need be, Hoss instinctively knew that no one returning to the scene of the crime would bother to knock. Still, he was uneasy. Too much had happened not to be.
“Here Hoss, let me help you.”
Doc Martin had followed him into Joe’s room, and was already pulling down covers and adjusting the pillow. Hoss was careful to lower his brother gently to the bed, but Joe’s moan stopped him short.
“It’s alright, Hoss. I’ll get him settled. There are men in the front and I believe I saw Roy Coffee with them.”
“Probably the posse he was gettin’ together.” Hoss stood, uncertain for a moment.
“He’ll be all right, Hoss. Go ahead.”
“Thanks Doc. Take good care of him.”
Hoss patted Joe’s leg, a brotherly show of affection he was suddenly nervous to demonstrate. He didn’t want to leave the kid, but there was work to be done. Studying his brother’s face one more time, anger flaring anew at the sight of the cuts and bruises, Hoss turned on his heel and headed through the door.
There was a break in the conversation when Hoss joined Adam and Roy downstairs. The two men seemed to be staring each other down, each sure of their position and unwilling to budge. Hoss could tell that Adam wasn’t happy about something, but knew enough to hold his tongue when older brother had that dark look about him. So although instinct urged him to be the peacemaker, he waited. He knew that Adam was desperate to find the men who’d hurt their pa and brother, and Hoss felt the same way. Anger burned within him, barely controlled and fierce in its desire for retribution. And for that reason, he was shocked when Adam dropped his gaze first.
“You’re right, Roy. But I don’t like it.”
“We’ll find them, Adam. I promise you.”
Hoss looked from one to the other, even more confused.
“What’s he right about, Adam? Aren’t we goin’ to look for this bunch? What are we waitin’ for?”
Silently, Roy reached out to pat Adam on the shoulder then with a nod to Hoss, he hurried out the door.
Quickly losing his temper, Hoss realized he was acting more like Adam or Joe than his normal easy-going self, but that didn’t stop his outburst. After the last few hours, who could expect anything else? Fists clenched, he stepped in front of his brother.
“What the hell is going on? Adam, we gotta find those men. Make ‘em pay for what they did to Pa and Little Joe.”
One arm pushing Adam to the side, Hoss lunged for the door, anxious to catch the sheriff.
“I’ll get the horses.”
But Adam grabbed his arm before he could pull the door open, the two of them suddenly face to face.
“Hoss, stop! Think this through.”
“There’s nothing to think about! We need to help Roy find whoever did this. We owe it to Pa and Joe!”
“Roy has enough men to help him search. We’re needed here, Hoss.”
“You stay, then. I’m going with the posse.”
Hoss grabbed for the door as Adam reached for him again. The sudden movement and his already flared temper pushed Hoss to the edge, his fist suddenly bunched and arm pulled back. It was the look in Adam’s eyes that stopped him just short of plunging a burly fist into his brother’s face.
“Hoss?” Adam stared at him, waiting.
He knew his voice sounded as bad as he felt, but Hoss managed one last attempt.
“Doc’s here, and…”
“And what? He’ll take care of both Pa and Joe? What if one of them takes a turn for the worse? What if those men would decide to come back? What if… No, Hoss, there’s different ways to take care of our family. This time we’re needed here.”
The anger melted swiftly, leaving Hoss with his head hanging, his chest heaving with emotion no longer contained. When he looked up at his brother, he realized Adam was fighting the same battle, probably had been since Roy Coffee first walked in the house. They stared at each other silently until Adam finally settled an arm across Hoss’ shoulders.
“Which one do you want first?”
Hoss swallowed hard, his gaze focused on his boots until he managed to answer.
“I’ll sit with Joe for a while.”
“Fine. I’ll sit with Pa.”
They were almost at the stairs when Hoss stopped abruptly.
“Soon as they’re better, or we get someone here to help out, I’m going out to find those fellas, Adam. And you won’t be able to stop me.”
Trudging up the steps, Hoss swore he heard a faint voice answer:
“I won’t stop you, brother, I’ll be right there beside you.”
The flames were close, so close that he could feel the warmth on his skin. His throat ached with the heat, tightening around what little bit of cool air was left to him. Joe thought he cried out, but he couldn’t hear his voice, the only sound was the roaring in his ears. The roar of the fire as it grew closer.
Why couldn’t he hear his voice? He knew he’d screamed, could still feel it vibrating within his chest. Why couldn’t he hear his own words?
But Pa was dead. He wouldn’t hear his son’s cries, even if they were capable of being heard. Ben Cartwright had been killed by some worthless thieves, and his son had done nothing to stop them.
Struggling to sit up, to stand, to run, Joe suddenly realized that he was still bound by the rough hemp. They’d left him here. Left him tied to a fence while his father bled to death inside their home; left him to die by fire. Where there’d been cold and rain, now there was heat and flames. And he was going to die.
“Please… oh God…please!”
The ropes seemed to tighten with every move until Joe felt that he couldn’t breathe. He strained to see through the darkness, but there was nothing, only an orange glow around the edges of his vision. His eyes streamed from the heat, and he ached to wipe the tears from his face. If only Adam or Hoss would come, they could save him, pull the ropes away and set him free. But they would also know his shame. He’d let their father die.
Straining, pulling, rearing up against the bonds that held him, Joe fought hard.
Neck arched, he struggled for air, any escape from the overpowering heat. A scream cut through the night, and Joe strained even harder. It was his own cry and he knew that no one could hear, but he called out again as if some miracle would bring his father back from the dead.
“Pa, please pa!”
Then suddenly a hand cupped his chin, the caress gentle its familiarity breaking through his agony. Along with the hand came a calm and loving voice, the words lost in the flow of a cadence that he would recognize anywhere. But how…Pa was gone. Gone to…
His tired brain registered the concept even as his weary body succumbed. Heaven. His Pa was gone, but he’d come back for him. Finally.
“Pa… I’m so…sorry Pa.”
Chaos erupted in Joe’s room. Paul Martin hurried out, headed for the pump and more cold water while Hoss held tight to his little brother’s body, fighting against the bucking and kicking energy; energy that should’ve been long spent. Adam, too, was holding onto Joe, trying desperately to calm his brother with soothing words and a gentle touch. Nothing was working. Joe was delirious and fought them like a wild cat, straining and pulling until they were sure he would hurt himself.
The pleas for help were the worst, calling for his pa in a voice that seemed to know his pa wouldn’t come. Adam straightened up, looking around wildly in search of an answer to this madness, only to turn in surprise at the voice behind him.
“Let me through! Joseph. Calm down, son. I’m here.”
Adam lost his balance, barely catching himself as Ben pushed by.
“My God. What did they do to you, boy?”
Perched on the edge of the bed, his own battered countenance matched his son’s as Ben leaned over Joe. Eyes hooded with pain and sadness, suddenly filled with moisture at the sight of white bandages barely covering raw wrists. Emotion barely in check, Ben gently cupped Little Joe’s chin as he softly called his name again. Adam and Hoss watched in amazement as their brother responded. The fight abruptly ceased, limbs stilled as Joe slowly relaxed against the pillows. Ben’s large hand remained on Joe’s cheek even as sleep overtook his son.
Adam stood behind his father, one hand on Ben’s shoulder, the other clamped around Joe’s ankle where he’d been holding on.
“What are you doin’ outta bed, Pa?” Hoss reached across the bed, trying to help support his father as Ben leaned over Joe. It was obvious the man had no business being out of bed himself.
“Ben, what in heaven’s name?” Paul Martin bustled into the room, pausing only to set a pitcher of cold water on the washstand before hurrying over to his patients. “What are you doing in here?”
“My son needed me. Where else would I be?”
The three men exchanged glances over Ben’s head as he continued to watch over Joe. It was clear that none of them approved of his rash deed, yet each of them recognized his presence had achieved what nothing else had. Little Joe was resting easy, or at least easier than he had been in hours. With something close to a sigh of acquiescence, Paul moved around the bed to check on his youngest patient. Adam watched the doctor closely, hoping for some sign of improvement, but was disappointed when Paul turned and motioned toward the stand. “Bring me some cold cloths, his fever is higher.”
Adam continued to support Ben while Hoss hurried over to empty the pitcher into the basin and soak several cloths in the icy water. As soon as he’d handed them over to the doctor, Hoss crossed the room again to pull a padded chair close to the bed. “No use wastin’ time gettin’ you back to your room, is there Pa?”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“Didn’t think you would.”
Adam saw the hint of a grin before Hoss glanced back at the bed where Doc Martin worked over Joe, the sight causing his brother to frown instead.
“Let’s get you settled, Pa.”
“Can you get the chair… closer?”
Hoss made a few adjustments, a chair moved one way, desk pushed another until the large chair sat just off the end of Joe’s bed, too far for Ben to reach, but close enough to watch his son with ease. The two worked quickly to settle Ben in the overstuffed chair, tucking several pillows around him to support his arm and shoulder before laying a quilt across his lap. The whole time Ben simply stared quietly at his youngest, his eyes following Paul from bed to basin and back as he changed the fever-heated cloths.
It was obvious that his journey from next door was too much, and they all knew he wouldn’t last long. But Adam knew better than to question his father’s will power, especially when it came to being there for one of his sons.
“Adam! Hoss! Help me hold him.”
The brothers lunged forward as Joe began to seize. His body stiffened, limbs straight as his neck arched back. It was a frightening sight, the jerky movements driving spikes of fear into Adam’s heart. Although Joe was always in motion, this uncontrolled movement was very different.
“Hoss, hold him! Adam, get something in his mouth so he doesn’t bite his tongue!”
Paul shouted orders while he tucked wet cloths behind Joe’s neck and along his sides. It seemed like hours rather than minutes before the seizing slowed then stopped. By the time Joe’s body had relaxed, the three men were breathing hard, each overcome by the sight and implications of the situation. Adam stared down at this little brother, wondering how much more the kid could take. Without realizing, he’d reached out to gently push dark curls away from Joe’s forehead in much the same way his father would have done. And with that realization, he whirled around to find Ben slumped to the floor in front of his chair. In all the frenzy over Joe, no one had seen him getting up, or collapsing.
“I’m all right, Adam. Just tend to your brother.”
“He’s resting easy, Pa. Let’s get you up.” Hoss countered.
Without waiting for permission, the two worked quickly and carefully to get their father off the floor and back in the chair again.
“What’d you think you were doin’ Pa? You’re too weak to be movin’ around so much.”
“I was going to my son.”
Ben’s simply reply brought silence to the room, all eyes focused again on the figure in the bed. Paul was still applying cold cloths, his worried frown belying his concern.
“How’s he… he doing, Paul?”
“Unresponsive. But that’s to be expected after a seizure. We need to do more to get this fever down. Hoss, can you get some ice up here?”
“Sure thing, Doc.”
With a quick look at Joe and then Ben, Hoss trotted out of the room, and for a few minutes the loudest sound in the house was the big man’s heavy steps on the stairs.
Adam felt torn between the desire to help with Joe and the need to be with Ben. Certain that Joe was in good hands with the doctor, he quickly opted for his pa. Squatting down in front of the chair, Adam laid a hand on his father’s knee and waited until Ben looked at him. “Joe’s going to be okay, Pa, and he’s going to need you when he wakes up. Why don’t you get back to bed? You need to rest too.”
“I’m staying here.”
“You’re just wearing yourself out. And you have the wound bleeding again.”
“Doc is taking good care of him.”
“I need to be here with my son.”
“We’ll get you if there’s any need.”
“No, Adam! I’m staying right here. Don’t you understand? I wasn’t there for him when he needed me. I won’t leave him again.”
Adam was stunned by the despair in Ben’s eyes as he stared at his youngest stretched out on the bed. It was the first time he’d said more than a few words about the ordeal, and Adam needed to know the details. “What happened, Pa?”
Ben leaned back in the chair, his gaze never leaving Joe. Adam tipped back on his heels, waiting patiently for more details.
“Joe was upstairs getting ready when they surprised me in the kitchen. It happened so fast. They had Joe…and I…I made a mistake.”
“There were five of them. Never saw them before, but I will see them again.”
Adam hung his head, eyes focusing on the carpet, chair legs, anything but his father’s gaze. He wasn’t the only one that wanted to see these devils pay.
“They hurt him.”
Ben’s voice was faint, but it brought Adam back from his musing with a start. “Yes.”
“You don’t…understand. They hurt him…because of me.”
“They hit him… cut his… Adam, they…tortured him. And… it was…my fault.”
“No, Pa. Joe wouldn’t…”
Ben’s chin dropped towards his chest, eyes glittering with unshed tears. Adam wanted to ask, needed to know, but was suddenly afraid to push his father too far. Tired, injured, feverish, the man needed to be in bed, not sitting in his son’s room remembering the horrific events that brought them here.
“Please Pa, you need to rest awhile. You’re right here close, and I’ll wake you if there’s any change.”
Ben nodded slightly, barely keeping his emotions in check as he leaned back against the pillows. His hands clenched the padded arms of the chair but he closed his eyes and within a few minutes was relaxing into a much-needed sleep. Still watching his father, Adam rose from his crouched position, taking a moment to straighten the blankets before turning away.
Taking two steps to the bed, Adam grabbed hold of the footboard, unable to hold in his frustration any longer. “What the hell happened here?”
Startled at the angry words, Hoss and Paul stopped what they were doing; the large pieces of ice wrapped and waiting were forgotten as they stared at Adam.
“What did those bastards do to our family?”
Adam’s knuckles were white, his heart pounding, and the room swayed through his blurred vision. There was no answer to his questions, just silence accompanied by the feverish breathing from Joe and a gentle snore from their father. Everything else faded away as Adam fought to control his anger, and for a moment he felt all alone, as if only he were left in a world gone mad. Then a large hand clamped around his bicep, the grip firm yet gentle.
“Come on, Adam. Let’s you and me take a walk.”
The pause was long, broken finally by Adam’s faint reply. “No. I’m alright.”
“Sure. We both are, but it won’t hurt to take a break.”
“Paul needs us.”
“We’ll be right back.”
“Go along, Adam. Hoss is right.”
“Come on, Adam.”
Hoss’ not so gentle pressure on his arm finally moved Adam to release his hold. It wasn’t that he was above fighting his brother, but he simply didn’t have the energy to resist.
“Just for a few minutes.”
The two trudged slowly from the room, Hoss’ arm draped across Adam’s shoulders as they closed the door behind them.
“He’s a fighter!”
Still clear in his memory hours after Doc Martin had muttered the words, Hoss hung onto them like a lifeline. Joe was a fighter. Joe ‘is’ a fighter. Just look at him, still hanging tough even though his body was near losin’ the battle.
Hoss pushed his sleeves up and dropped the towels in the bucket only to pull them out to wring excess water from the dripping fabric. They’d long ago given up on the small basin and little cloths. The fever had taken such a hold on the boy they’d been forced to near cover his sweating flesh with cold towels and ice compresses. At least he hadn’t had another one of those seizures.
“Here, Adam, another cold one.”
Adam deftly removed a warm towel from Joe’s chest to replace it with the cold one. The frown he wore hadn’t changed in the past several hours and the sight made Hoss look away. He was worried enough without seeing it reflected in his brother’s eyes.
‘See…there he is… tell Pa….’
Activity ceased for a moment, as everyone waited for more, but there was nothing. It’d been like this for the better part of the night. Questions that had no answers, statements that didn’t fit together or make any sense, the ranting of a sick man giving his brothers more worry than they could handle.
“Hoss, give me another.”
Without hesitation, Hoss grabbed the next towel and plunged it into the bucket. “Glad I brought two up last time, but they’re goin’ fast,” he murmured without expecting any response.
“I’ll go for the next ones, Hoss. I could use some fresh air.”
“Sure Doc. There’s some coffee on the kitchen stove, if you want a cup.”
“How about you boys? Can I bring you anything?”
‘Pa! Give him another one, Pa. You promised!’
Hoss looked from Adam to Joe and back. “No thanks, Doc.”
Paul waited until Hoss had removed two more of the cloths before gathering the buckets and heading downstairs.
No longer motionless, Joe was suddenly all movement without purpose. His head moved from side to side, as if he were looking for something even though his eyes were closed. Feet stirred under white sheets, while his hands clenched and unclenched below pink-tinged bandages. It was hard to watch.
“I’m surprised Pa hasn’t woke up, with all the commotion.”
“Paul slipped something in that last glass of water you gave him.”
“Yeah, thought you noticed him mixing it up.”
“Nah, guess I was too focused on Joe.”
“I think he hated to do it, but figured Pa needed the rest after…after everything.”
“Best thing for him. Not like he can help much anyway, what with his shoulder and all. Just causin’ him more worry to see Joe like this.”
Hoss rolled up a small wet cloth and tucked it behind his brother’s neck. “How long you think this can go on?”
Adam simply shook his head, unwilling or unable to answer the question.
‘Adam and Hoss will go! See ‘em?”
Hoss sat down on the edge of the bed, one hand gently pushing Joe’s damp hair from his face.
“Take it easy, Shortshanks, we’re right here.”
‘I told you. No! Don’t…don’t do it!”
“He can’t hear you, Hoss.”
“I know. But I keep hopin’ he’ll recognize my voice.”
Adam didn’t answer, simply turned back to the wash basin for another cloth.
‘Pa, you gotta do it…’
Hoss dropped his head in his hands. It was hard for a man to take, seeing his brother suffer like this. And Pa, pale and weak, slumped to the side in a chair that didn’t suffice for a bed.
Time passed slowly, minutes running together until Hoss was almost surprised to hear Doc Martin return. Paul’s voice was like a balm, his presence a simple reassurance. “How’s he doing?”
“About the same.”
Hoss forced himself from Joe’s side to situate the buckets that Paul had brought up with him. They wrapped more cool cloths around Joe, doing their best to get the fever down, the three working together seamlessly.
He wasn’t sure how much time had passed, but little by little Joe seemed to be quieting.
Doc had been encouraging when he finally gave in to a short nap, but Hoss wasn’t convinced the worst was over. Didn’t look like Adam was either, but they didn’t talk about it. In fact, several hours passed with nothing being said at all, nothing until Adam finally spoke. “Why don’t you get some rest too, Hoss?”
“We’re going to need to spell each other if this goes on for long. You get some sleep and then I’ll take a break. I’ll call you if there’s any need.”
There was no more said for a while, and everything was quiet except for some soft snoring. Maybe that helped Hoss give in, or maybe it was the warmth of the room and the crackling fire. Suddenly he was tired, so tired. His eyes felt gritty, and though he continued to stare at Joe, it was like looking through a smoky screen. It was hard to give in, but reluctantly he did. “Guess I could lay down for a spell, but you come get me if he gets worse, or if Pa needs somethin’.”
Hoss got up slowly, reluctant to leave the room. At the door, he turned to stare at Joe again. “I’ll leave my door open. Just holler and I’ll be up if you need me.”
“Sure, Hoss. But we’ll be fine. Get some rest.”
It seemed like a long walk, though his room was only steps away. Hoss didn’t bother to pull back the blankets, but simply stretched out on his bed and heaved a long sigh. Slowly his body started to relax, the hum of low voices drifting across the hall. Instead of lulling him to sleep however, he found his attention split between trying to make out the conversation and watching a bit of light faintly moving on the ceiling, a weak reflection from the flickering hallway lamp.
Closing his eyes didn’t help. Almost instantly he was staring again at the pinpoint of light, the murmuring voices still coming to him from Joe’s room. It was no use, and Hoss pulled himself tiredly from the soft mattress to sit on the edge of his bed. He didn’t bother to turn up his own lamp, but sat quietly in the darkened room, his mind playing over every minute of the past twenty four hours.
Staring down at his own large hands, Hoss instead saw the chaffed wrists of his little brother. Fists clenched, he bowed his head and wished for the release that could only come from finding the men who had done this to his family.
Although it had been only minutes, Hoss slowly got to his feet and once more crossed the darkened hallway. No matter how tired he was, there was only one place he could be. At least…for now. Later, he had a job to do.
Ben awoke to the sound of snoring. Familiar in tone and rhythm, he knew it had to be Hoss. The realization was almost enough to comfort him. Almost.
The barest of movement took his breath away, muscles screaming from the abuse of the past few days. Normally it would’ve given him pause, but his desire for answers far outweighed his need to rest, so Ben moved forward another few inches in his chair.
There was the source of the noise, and yes, it was Hoss. Head tipped back against the chair, mouth open, it was a wonder the whole house wasn’t awake. But Ben didn’t have the heart to be annoyed, not when he noticed his son’s large hand resting, even in sleep, on Joe’s leg. As he became more aware, Ben realized there was an accompanying though softer snore from Paul Martin, who was slumped awkwardly in a chair near the window.
It was the sight of Adam that caught and held Ben’s attention. His oldest was perched on the edge of a wooden chair, upper part of his body leaning forward on the bed, head resting on folded hands.
At first, Ben thought his son had fallen asleep in that position. ‘Uncomfortable looking,’ was his thought as he scooted toward the edge of his chair. With his next breath, Ben’s heart lurched in his chest as realization dawned. The movement, though slight, was distinct. Shoulders shaking with emotion, Adam must be crying, and the realization evoked the same response from Ben, along with a healthy dose of fear.
Joe was dead…he’d slipped away in the night while his father slept.
Pitching forward, Ben literally fell from his chair, knees hitting the floor, his good arm grabbing for the bedpost.
“Joe… God no, not Joe…”
“Hoss, help me.”
“It’s all right, Pa. Everything’s all right.”
“God forgive me…”
Voices mingled, gliding over and around each other, accompanied by the sound of furniture moving amid gut-wrenching sobs.
Yet within the swirl of noise and activity, a voice raised in supplication rose above the others bringing with it, resounding silence.
The heat was there although distant, as if he was a long way from the camp fire. Joe wondered lazily if Hoss had let the fire die down. There’d be hell to pay if Adam noticed.
Sleep pulled at him, and Joe gave up trying to reason out where he was or why he cared about a campfire. He was warm enough, wasn’t he? Besides, there were voices nearby, meaning Pa was probably up and that meant breakfast soon. Someone would surely stoke the fire so the coffee could be started. Although water sounded better; a nice cold drink would sure taste good about now.
Wait. No, it wasn’t a campfire he’d been… hell fire? Was that what he’d been experiencing? The memory was too terrible and Joe’s mind quickly flitted away from the recollection.
Rope. That was part of it. Rope, tightening around his…. No, he could move now, he’d….
The sound… moans or sobs… someone… Were they crying? The cadence was low, choked back as if someone were trying to hide… Adam? It couldn’t be. Not big brother… not Adam. He’d never… It wasn’t possible… Yet it had to be… It was…
One hand snaked out from the coverlet, fingers slowly inching to the form pressed near his side. Slowly opening his eyes, Joe recognized Adam’s dark head resting on folded hands, and he reached out. Black hair felt soft against the torn skin of his fingers but Joe stopped, suddenly afraid to face his brother’s anguish. Adam knew the truth. He knew. He’d found Pa. He knew that Pa was dead. Adam knew that Joe had failed.
Grief washed over him like a wave of ice water. Heart pounding, throat constricting until his lungs burned, Joe wanted to scream out his pain but no sound would come. Eyes closed until only a pinprick of light seemed to pierce his vision, and everything was fading away, his focus only on the soft sobs of the brother beside him. Joe couldn’t bear it, couldn’t face the pain he felt radiating off Adam, couldn’t…
“Joe… God no, not Joe…”
The voice sliced through him and everything else melted away. Who? How? Was he dreaming? Could it….
Adam’s sobs no longer mattered. The only thing in the world was the sound of that voice, now accompanied by wails of grief that didn’t belong to his brother. They were from his…father. His pa. But it couldn’t be. Pa was dead. Joe knew it, remembered the piercing pain in his heart when he realized that his father was gone.
Yet that voice… Pa’s voice… No one else could sound like his pa! And the voice was right there….
Raising his head off the pillow just enough to see the group beside his bed, Joe moved his hand from Adam and stretched it toward the man he thought he’d lost forever. “Pa?”
Although his voice sounded faint and weak, Joe realized that his one-worded plea had brought silence to the room. Faces turned toward him, but all he could see was the look on his father’s face. Too many emotions. Raw, unbelievable, miraculous emotions. Joe stretched further until his arm screamed with pain, and still he couldn’t reach his father.
Happy noise or stunned silence in the room, Joe didn’t notice. All he knew was the vision before him was real. Hoss was helping Pa to the bedside, and within seconds, father and son were carefully embracing each other, the older brothers’ hands gently placed on their loved ones. The sound of quiet sobs could’ve been from any of them. But Joe focused only on the feel of his father’s arms around him. And as it sunk in, he simply closed his eyes and basked in enormous relief. His pa was alive!
“That’s enough, Hoss.”
“Now Joe, you only ate half this soup. Can’t you try just a little more?”
“Feel like I’m four again… Pa cuttin’ my meat or…makin’ me take another bite.”
“Ha! You ain’t careful, little brother, I’ll get Pa in here to give it a try.”
Silence greeted his teasing, and Hoss let the spoon drop back into the bowl. “Hands hurtin’?”
“It’s gonna be alright, Joe, ‘specially now we’re sure you can see outta that eye. Won’t be no time ‘fore you’re settin’ up to the table shoveling in some of Hop Sing’s tender roast beef.”
Hoss gently grasped Joe’s forearm, waiting for their eyes to meet before answering. “We done told you, boy. Don’t you remember? Pa is fine. He’s gettin’ some sleep, but he’ll be back in here before you know it. He’s alright, Joe.”
With a light squeeze, Hoss let go of his brother’s arm to straighten the blankets and tuck another pillow behind Joe’s shoulder. “You get some sleep and I’ll go clean up the kitchen. If Hop Sing comes back to that mess, he’ll have all our hides for sure.”
Hoss gathered up the dishes then stopped on his way out to pull the drapes closed against the morning sun. With one hand on the heavy cloth, he stopped abruptly to study the commotion in the yard. Glassware rattled in his hand as he leaned forward to see Sheriff Coffee leading the posse up to the house, the group seemingly quiet and dejected. Hoss didn’t wait to count heads, but quickly pulled the drapes together and headed for the door.
“You get some sleep, Joe. I’ll be back to check on you in a little while.”
Pulling the door firmly closed behind him, Hoss hurried down the hallway toward the stairs, careful to keep his footsteps as quiet as possible. He was halfway to the bottom of the steps when he realized that Adam was standing at the table, saddle bags full.
Hoss pounded down the last two steps and all but dropped the dishes on the table. “Sheriff just rode in.”
Adam swung around, buckling his gun belt around his hips as he strode toward the door, Hoss only a step behind.
Opening the door revealed the sheriff looking more tired than either could remember. “Boys. How’s your pa, and Joe?”
Adam stepped back to allow the lawman’s entrance, while Hoss stepped into the doorway, intent on trying to recognize the posse members in the yard. “Everyone okay out there, Roy?”
“Yeah. We only have one man hurt.”
“Which one? Bring him in!”
“No need, it was Jim Williams and he’s already headed for town. It was a flesh wound and Morgan rode in with him. He’ll be alright.”
It wasn’t lost on Hoss, Adam’s dark scowl and fierce gaze. Roy didn’t seem to be bothered, but waited patiently for the answer to his own question instead.
“They’re both going to be all right.”
Hoss motioned toward the settee while keeping a close eye on Adam. He could tell the dark energy was barely in check. If he were honest, he had the same feelings himself.
“Sit down, Roy. You look done in.”
“I am. But so are the rest of the boys outside. Just wanted to stop here first and check on Ben and Joe, and tell you what happened.”
“What did happen, Roy?” Adam questioned again.
Slowly turning to face the seething man, Roy took a deep breath, obviously trying to hold his own temper before dealing with Adam. “We found ‘em.”
“And they didn’t want to come in peaceable. In fact, they started shooting before we got close enough to do any talking. They’re all dead.”
Adam’s cry wasn’t one of pain, yet Hoss knew that’s exactly what it was. He felt it himself.
“So what was it all for? All the trouble, the torture, the money…for what?”
The question hung in the air between them, the three of them silenced by the simplistic plea.
Roy twisted his hat between his hands, then finally looked at Adam and answered quietly. “I guess we’ll never know, boys. Those men out there, well, they died for their crime. There’s no way to punish ‘em further. And the revenge you were hopin’ for wouldn’t have made you feel any better, either. We just need to be grateful that your pa and brother are still here. In the end, nothing else really matters, does it?”
His words sounded eerily like something Ben might’ve said, if he were up and about. At least, the way Ben usually felt. Hoss wasn’t so sure after everything that had happened over the past few days. He hoped that Roy’s simple verdict was true, that the family could get past this. But there was a lot of hurt and anger left to deal with, and now with these men dead, no chance of using that energy up on them.
Roy slowly put his hat on then walked past them to his horse. Without speaking, he pulled a canvas bag from his saddle and brought it back to the porch. Adam took the bag, not bothering to look inside, but simply setting it inside the front door. He couldn’t bear to look at the money right now, or think what it might’ve cost them.
Adam and Hoss stood quietly in the doorway as Roy climbed back into the saddle and led the posse toward Virginia City and their homes. The four bodies draped over their saddles were a grim reminder of the brutality that existed here hours before.
Hoss watched as Adam stuffed hands deep in his pockets and walked slowly toward the barn. With a mixture of anger and relief, he followed his brother across the yard. They didn’t need those bodies to remind them of what happened here. But they needed some kind of purging to ease the feelings they both harbored. Now, with the culprits gone, they would have to find some other way to expend the pent up energy. It didn’t take much thinking to realize that it was already eating away at his older brother. And Hoss knew that, in the weeks ahead, they were going to need Adam’s strength.
The rope tightened slowly around his throat, the noose growing tighter and tighter until he couldn’t breathe. Clawing at his neck brought no relief, his hands pulled by the loops of hemp circling his wrists. He had to get free, had to help…. Tears of frustration leaked from his eyes, heart beating faster with every twist and turn of his body as it bucked against the restraints. Why? Why were they doing this? He fought harder, a shout of anger laced with fear erupting only to die on his lips as a familiar voice came to him.
Eyes opened slowly to reveal familiar wooden beams overhead. Heart thumping, breathing heavy, his hands holding his neck, it took several minutes for Joe to realize there was no rope. He was free.
Finally recognizing his father’s worried voice, Joe turned enough to see his pa struggling to get out of the red leather chair. The book Ben had been reading was on the floor, the lap robe wadded up in a ball beside it. As he watched his father struggle one-armed to rise from his seat, the pieces suddenly fell into place and Joe remembered everything. He wasn’t tied to a post, no rope wrapped around his arms or throat. He was free. Safe.
One more deep shuddering breath and Joe willed himself to be calm. “I’m okay, Pa.”
Wiping a shaky hand across his face, Joe could feel the dampness on his brow, clear evidence that the awful dream had its consequences. His body ached in more places than he wanted to admit, but Joe pushed himself to a sitting position then leaned against the settee’s rounded back as he struggled to clear his mind. He didn’t want to remember, even if it was just a dream. It was a little too close to the truth, and way too soon to think about.
Ben hadn’t stopped though, his progress slow but steady. Joe was still staring at the ceiling when his father settled beside him.
“You sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah, Pa. I’m fine.”
Joe was grateful to his father for not finishing the sentence, but his relief was short-lived.
“You’re feeling guilty.”
The statement was simple but blunt. And it hit dead center on Joe’s line of thinking, so much so that he almost bolted from the settee. Only his father’s calm but restraining hand on his knee stopped his attempted escape.
“Pa, I don’t want to…”
“I know; you don’t want to talk about it. But we have to. It’s been three days, and you’ve barely spoken to your brothers. Or me.”
“Haven’t heard you saying much either.”
Ben’s conversation dried right up, and Joe would’ve grinned at his unusual success if it hadn’t been such a sensitive subject.
“Why don’t you try that book again, son? Might help you get your mind off…things.”
Joe snagged his father’s sleeve as Ben moved to get up.
They both knew that he wasn’t fine. Neither of them were.
“You shouldn’t feel guilty either.”
“Try to get some rest, Joe.”
Joe set back, surprised at his father’s sudden switch. Ben was usually the one that encouraged Joe to talk things out, but here he was, evading the subject better than Joe ever could. It was an unusual change in their relationship, one which Joe struggled to understand. His father was staring across the room as if he couldn’t find a thing to say. Ben was always ready to offer advice and guidance when his sons needed it, but the minute the shoe was on the other. .
And then unexpectedly, laughter bubbled up, and for the first time since he’d woke up to his family’s worried stares, Joe felt light in spirit. “You don’t have to wonder where I get my stubbornness from.”
“What do you…”
Ben stiffened for a moment, his startled expression reflecting his inner turmoil. “Maybe you’re feeling better after all, young man,” he finally blurted out. “You’re getting a little sassy.”
Joe leaned toward his pa, their shoulders touching for a moment. The room was quiet as they sat there together. Joe’s voice was low when he finally found the right words, few as they were. “Pa, it wasn’t your fault.”
Ben was looking down at his hands, clasping and unclasping his fingers. He started to speak several times, only to stop, clear his throat, and try again. Minutes passed before he managed to answer. “I didn’t give them the money when they threatened you.”
There, it was out. Unexpected. Blunt, but candid.
“You didn’t know what they’d do, Pa!” Joe answered fervently. “We have to fight for what is ours. If we don’t stand up to defend it, everyone will be taking a piece of the Ponderosa. And it’s worth the fight.”
“But no money, land, holdings…nothing is worth a son’s life. Nothing!”
Joe paused, consumed by the look of pain on his father’s face. His voice was soft again, but very clear as he laid a hand on Ben’s knee and gently squeezed. “I’m right here, Pa.”
It wasn’t enough, not near enough to talk through or explain away all the hurt, fear, or regret. But neither of them was in a talking mood, and after more than a few minutes of strained silence, Joe knew he had to give his father some time. “Don’t think I can read anymore. Maybe a short walk would do me good.”
Ben didn’t answer, just kept staring at the fireplace as Joe got up and moved toward the door. It wasn’t until Joe had the door open that his pa finally acknowledged his leaving.
“Take it easy and don’t overdo it, Joe.”
“Sure, Pa. I’ll be back in a while.”
Out on the porch, Joe leaned against the wall, silently regretting his hasty departure. He felt guilty, second-guessing his decision to leave. But it seemed right to give his father some privacy. They both had a lot to deal with. Still, he could’ve done something, said more, or insisted Pa put aside any guilt. After all, if there was any guilt to be meted out, most of the portion should go right on his plate. He shouldn’t have let those men get the drop on him. If he’d done a better job of keeping his eyes open, he would’ve known those men were in the house.
Kicking at the step, Joe almost turned to go back inside, maybe try talking to his father again. Instead, the sound of an axe striking wood caught his attention. Curiosity drew Joe across the yard and out past the barn. And then, as he came around the corner and saw his oldest brother hard at work, Joe suddenly realized there were other family members who might be having trouble with this whole mess. In a flash of understanding, Joe remembered comments and snatches of conversations between Adam and Hoss over the past several days. There was anger involved, resentment and bitterness. He’d ignored all that, for his own selfish reasons, as if he were the only one with a corner on the ‘guilt’ market.
But now, down at the bottom of the old corral, Adam had an axe firmly in hand, the rhythmic chopping just about to do its job as the wooden post was wobbling and about to fall. Joe stopped short, his breath caught in his throat as he realized what was happening. This wasn’t the first post to fall, but it was definitely the last. Adam had obviously been hard at work for some time, a half circle of posts already dropped by his hand. But this one, this last one . . .
Adam grunted as the axe struck the post again. It wasn’t the first one, but it was the last. The ‘one.’ He could still see the scars on the wood where the ropes had rubbed their mark. Maybe that’s why he’d left it ‘til last. Maybe that’s why he felt he had to use the axe instead of the shovel. If nothing else, it was some type of catharsis, chopping away at this offending reminder.
The post was wobbling when Adam stopped to rest. One or two more blows and it would be gone. Would it help? Pulling a handkerchief from his back pocket, he wiped his brow as he studied the piece of wood. This wasn’t the only reminder, of course. Just looking at Joe’s bruises, or watching Pa’s face was more than enough to make them all know how many wounds needed to be healed. Not for the first time, Adam wished for the opportunity to beat the living hell out of the intruders who had hurt his family. It was one of life’s ironies, he assumed, that he and Hoss had been denied the chance to inflict their own retribution.
With a grown of exasperation, Adam kicked at the post. Hard. It was enough, and the timber fell to the ground. It was little satisfaction in the end, as Adam hopped on one foot to ease the other.
“Hurt your foot, older brother?”
Adam’s foot hit the ground as he straightened up. He hadn’t heard Joe come up beside him, and felt foolish when he realized what his brother had witnessed. “Nah… it’s fine.”
“Uh huh.” Joe looked around, trying to keep his emotions in check. “Makin’ some changes?”
Adam didn’t answer, but stared past the line of dead posts, focusing on the tree line across the meadow. This whole thing was too hard for him to talk about. Clearly the whole family felt the same, as evidenced by the lack of conversation around the dinner table, or in front of the fireplace the last few evenings. They had to get through this.
A strangled cough brought his attention to Joe. His little brother was looking in the same direction, the same tree line, making Adam wonder what his little brother might be remembering. After all, this was the view he’d been staring at all those long hours. Had he thought they might be his last?
An eagle screamed high overhead, and almost instantly a cool breeze swirled around them. Instinctively, Adam stepped closer and laid an arm across Joe’s shoulders. There were times when Joe seemed to resent his attention, but this wasn’t one of them. In fact, the kid almost leaned toward him.
The two stood quietly but companionably as the moment passed and the eagle flew away on the breeze. Adam waited another few minutes before clearing his throat to state matter-of-factly, “This corral isn’t big enough for the yearlings we have coming up. Thought maybe we’d enlarge it some. Give us a little more room to work with ‘em this season.”
Joe nodded appreciatively, seeming to go along with the routine order of business. “Where are you plannin’ to put the gate?”
“Hadn’t really thought about it.”
“How about movin’ it to the west side? Make it a little easier when we’re comin’ up from the pasture.”
Joe was already buying into the excuse. “And while we’re at it, why don’t we gate the other side and add a smaller pen for those times we need to separate one or two?”
Adam looked down at Joe, the barest hint of a frown forming across his brow. “Guess that makes sense, but I wasn’t planning on that much work back here right now.”
“Yeah, but Adam, it does make sense to improve it all at the same time. No use doing this half-way.”
Adam pulled his arm from Joe’s shoulder and bent to pick up the axe. He shook his head in feigned exasperation as he walked back to the pile of tools, deftly exchanging the axe for a shovel. “I really don’t have time for major renovations, Joe, thought we’d just enlarge it a little.”
“Aw, come on, Adam. It won’t take much time at all.”
“Sure, not much time for me to do the work, you mean. It’s not like you’re ready to be out here digging fence holes.”
“Maybe not, but I bet we both know a big brother that could lend a hand.”
Adam stopped, leaning on the shovel as he grinned knowingly at Little Joe. “Well, now that you mention it, that’s not such a bad idea.”
The two smiled broadly at each other, the tension suddenly melting away in the midst of their bantering. Impulsively, Adam turned to look toward the barn, not surprised to see his father and brother watching them. Caught up in the moment, he held his shovel up high, as if inviting Hoss’ help, and was rewarded with the sound of Joe’s familiar giggle.
But it was Ben’s laughter, ringing out over them all, that made everything feel right again.