The Christmas Wish (by Winnie)

Synopsis:  With Christmas only a few weeks away, what’s behind Joe’s fear of his oldest brother?

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  27,645


The first sensation he had was cold, so cold his body trembled where it lay on the snow covered ground. His arms were pinned painfully behind his back and he tried unsuccessfully to pull them apart.

Finally giving up on his arms he opened his eyes against the glaring sun-drenched snow. Sharp pain exploded behind his eyes and he quickly closed them again. Breathing deeply he once again opened his eyes, but only a tiny slit; a small groan escaped his lips as once again the bright sunshine, glaring off the snow, temporarily blinded him. Finally his eyes came open and he glanced around.

He seemed to be in a rock-enclosed grotto. The few trees he could see were devoid of life in this winter nightmare and he shuddered worriedly. As his eyes continued to survey the area he heard a sound behind him. Slowly he rolled his body in the snow and lifted his head to see what had grabbed his attention. “No!” he cried as his mind registered the three men standing a few feet away from him.

Of the three, only one registered in his mind and although the man’s face was turned away from him, he knew who it was. His worst nightmare came true as the man turned and started towards him.

“Why?”

As the man dressed in the all to familiar black clothing stood over him, laughter filled the air. “Why, Little brother? Why do you think?”

“Adam, please.”

“Begging won’t help you,” the man in black said, as he reached down and pulled Joe to his feet. “I’ve wanted to do this for a long time,” he said as he pulled his hand back and formed a large fist.

Joe watched his beloved older brother’s eyes as his fist began its forward momentum. The eyes were filled with hatred and he knew nothing he could say or do would stop what lay ahead. He felt the full impact as his brother’s fist connected with his right temple and would have fallen if not for the steadying hands of the two unknown men.

“Oh this is going to be such a pleasure. I wish Pa and Hoss were here to watch it. I’m sure they’d enjoy it as much as I am,” the man in black said as he launched another fist into little Joe’s face.

Joe felt the impact as blow after blow rained down on his body. He felt the pain from each blow, but it was nothing compared to the pain of knowing who was delivering them. ‘Oh, Adam, what did I do to you?’ Joe asked himself. Finally his mind and body could take no more and he slipped into unconsciousness.

“He’s out cold,” the stranger holding Joe Cartwright’s left arm shouted.

“Damn, I was just beginning to enjoy myself,” the man in black said disappointedly. “I guess funs over for today. Tie him to his horse and we’ll get out of here.”

The two strangers moved their burden towards the black and white pony they’d left standing by the edge of the rocks.

Cochise shied away from the familiar, yet unfamiliar scents that attacked his nostrils. He knew the scent of his owner, but it was overshadowed by the metallic scent of blood. An unfamiliar hand reached for his reigns and he felt the weight of his master as he was thrown on his back.

Joe opened one eye as he felt himself being tied to the saddle of his horse. He groaned as the pain in his body intensified. He tried to struggle against his enemies but his strength was non-existent and he was soon secured face down on his horse. Joe watched as the man in black walked towards him, an evil grin on his face, his eyes sparking dangerously.

“So you’re not as out of it as you led me to believe, little brother. I’m sorry I don’t have time to stick around and enjoy battering your body some more; but I have to finish the job Pa gave me before I can return home. See you on the Ponderosa, Joe,” he laughed and maliciously slapped Joe across the face.

Joe had met the eyes and knew what real terror was. He closed his eyes at the loss of the brother he had loved and respected even during their harshest disagreements. As the warm blood spilled from his split lips Joe closed his eyes and wept openly.

The man in black lifted his hand and slapped the black and white pony. Instantly Cochise took off, leaving the sickening laughter to follow his retreating form.

*****

“Where is that brother of yours now, Hoss?” Ben Cartwright asked as he walked out onto the porch.

“I don’t know, Pa. Joe said he’d be home early. It’s past supper and he still ain’t home,” Hoss answered his father’s query.

“I’m beginning to thing your brother has a built in lack of timing,” Ben tried to sound offhand but it lacked conviction, even to his own ears. He was as worried as Hoss about Little Joes absence. As father to three very different sons he’d never had a dull moment. Something was always happening and when it involved his youngest son it usually didn’t turn out well. Joe seemed to attract trouble no matter how hard he tried to avoid it.

“Maybe I should go look for him,” Hoss said.

“Where would you look, Hoss?”

“I don’t know, Pa. But it’s starting to snow and it’s getting dark.”

“That’s just it, Son. I don’t want both of you missing tonight. I’m sure he’ll be…” suddenly he stopped as the form of a horse galloped into the yard. “Here he is now,” Ben said, instantly recognizing his youngest son’s horse.

“Thank-God,” Hoss said as he followed his father towards the barn where Cochise had stopped.

Ben knew instinctively something was wrong. Joe hadn’t made a move to get off his horse. He lay against Cochise as if the two were one. Suddenly Ben ran the remaining distance to Cochise’s side. “Oh my God!” he cried. “Hoss get over here,” he yelled as he reached up to touch his beloved sons ravaged face. “Oh, Joe, who did this to you?” he asked aloud as he began the tedious task of trying to undo the knots.

“What’s wrong, Pa?” Hoss asked as he came up behind his father.

His sharp intake of breath told Ben there was no need for explanations. “Give me a knife and go send someone into town for Paul and Roy.”

“Pa, who? Why?” Hoss asked as he passed over a small knife.

“Just do what I ask, Hoss. There’ll be time enough for questions later,” Ben said as he cut through the ropes that bound his son to the horse.

“Yes, Sir, Pa,” Hoss said, hurrying away as quickly as his large body would allow.

“Oh, Joe, who could have done this to you?” Ben asked aloud as he pulled his son’s body from the horse. With loving care he held his son in his arms and hurried towards the ranch house.

Hop Sing appeared out of nowhere and held the door for the Cartwright Patriarch and his burden. “Hop Sing bring water and cloths for Little Joe,” the small oriental cook said in a heavily accented voice.

“Thank-you, Hop Sing,” Ben said as he hurried up the stairs. Once inside Joe’s room he placed the beaten body on the bed and began to remove his tattered clothing. He felt the body tremble as each article was removed.

“Pa, is he ok?” Hoss asked as he joined his father at his brother’s side.

“No, Hoss, he’s not!” Ben told him and immediately regretted snapping, “ I’m Sorry, son, but somebody did this to Joe and then tied him to Cochise. They wanted him to make it back here.”

“Why, Pa?”

Ben continued to remove the clothing and was shocked at the extent of the bruising. Not an inch of Joe’s upper body had been spared. The bruises ranged from light purple to deep, dark browns and blacks. Ben fought to keep his emotions under control. “They wanted us to see him like this. Whoever did this wanted Joe to suffer and wanted us to see it,” he said as Hop Sing came into the room with warm water and clean cloths.

Ben began to gently wash his son’s body as Hoss and Hop Sing looked on. Each time he touched the cloth to a new bruise or cut it elicited a small cry from Joe’s lips.

Joe felt his cold trembling body begin to take on some warmth but as it spread so did the agony that was his body. He tried to force his eyes open but only succeeded in partially opening his right eye. He heard his father’s voice talking to him as if from a distance.

Joe tried to smile, but found it difficult through his swollen mouth. “Pa,” he whispered.

“I’m here, son,” Ben said softly as he watched the one hazel eye.

“Hurts,” Joe said.

“I know it does, Joe. Can you tell me who did this to you?” Ben asked.

Joe’s eye clouded over and his mind fought against the memory of the man who’d inflicted the torture. Shaking his head violently he screamed, losing his slender hold on reality.

Ben reached for his son’s face and gently cupped his hands around his cheeks, “Joe, you need to calm down,” he said and pulled him into his arms.

Joe’s thrashing stopped as soon as his father’s hands touched his face. “Pa, it was, it was…”

“Who, Joe?” Ben asked and watched a blank look once again come over Joe’s face.

“I… I don’t know,” Joe told him. He searched his memory but could find nothing that would give him a clue as to who had beaten him. Tears rolled silently down his cheeks as his one eye looked fearfully at his father. “I can’t remember.”

“That’s ok, son, we’ll talk about it later. Right now I think you need to get some sleep. That’s it close your eyes and sleep,” Ben found it hard to control his anger as he used the word eyes. He watched as Joe closed the one blackened eye and his breathing showed that he’d surrendered to sleep. He gently placed his son’s body back on the bed and pushed a stray lock of hair away from his forehead.

“He ok, Pa?” Hoss asked worriedly.

“As ok as he can be at the moment. I just wish Paul would get here,” Ben said and walked to the window. The light snowfall that had started when Joe arrived home had stopped and the moon shone brightly off the crisp snow. He shivered but it had nothing to do with the cold night outside.

“He’ll be here soon, Pa,” Hoss said and took his father’s vacated seat at Joe’s bedside. “Hey, Little Joe, you gotta be ok,” he said as he held his sleeping brothers hand.

Ben secretly watched his two younger sons, one large and healthy, and the other seeming small and helpless as he lay on the clean white sheets. He sighed as Hop Sing walked into the room with fresh, hot coffee. “Thank-you, Hop Sing.”

“You welcome, Mr. Cartwright. Hop Sing keep plenty coffee going. Going to be long night,” the little oriental said as he hurried out of the room.

The long minutes turned into longer hours as the Cartwrights and Hop Sing continued their vigil over Joe. They took turns standing at the window watching for Dr. Martin.

The only sounds in the room came from Joe as he relived the days torture in his tormented sleep. Sometimes Hoss or Ben would have to physically hold him down as his body thrashed violently in the bed. When the nightmares seemed to leave him the only word he spoke was his oldest brothers name.

“Why do you think he’s calling for Adam?” Hoss asked from the window.

“I don’t know, Hoss, but I wish your older brother was here. I think Joe’s missed him more than he lets on.”

“Maybe we should wire him to come home,” Hoss suggested.

“I’m going to. It’s only six weeks till Christmas and it would be nice if we could all be together.”

“I still don’t understand why he left in such a hurry,” Hoss said.

“Your older and younger brothers don’t seem to mix well, Son. Adam and Joe are like oil and water. I know they love each other but they can’t seem to get along under the same roof. Adam and I talked all night before he left. He knew things were getting worse between them and he also knew that Joe was too young to be out on his own. He made his decision so that Joe would not be the one to leave,” Ben explained.

“You think he’ll come home?”

“I know he will. Adam doesn’t want to be away, Hoss. He just couldn’t see any other way around the fighting. I think Little Joe has been regretting the fight that drove him away. I don’t blame either of them for what happened. If I had only one wish this Christmas it would be for the two of them to mend their fences.”

“Me too, Pa,” Hoss said and lapsed into silence.

Hop Sing listened quietly to the conversation between father and son. He knew how much love the Cartwrights had for each other. He’d seen it many times in many different ways. He’d also bore witness to the last fight between Adam and Joe. Adam had finally lost his temper to the point where he’d lifted his fist and had barely stopped himself from smashing it into little Joe’s face. Adam had left the next morning and that was nearly five months ago. Sadness had been apparent in the household ever since even though the family tried to hide it. He was pulled out of his reverie by the sound of approaching horses outside.

“Hop Sing let Dr. Martin in,” he said and hurried from the room.

Ben waited patiently for Dr. Paul Martin, the family’s long-time doctor and friend to make his way inside. He could hear Paul stamping his boots and Hop Sing telling him he’d take his coat and hat. Finally he heard the sound of approaching footsteps and looked up as the doctor entered.

“What happened, Ben?” Paul asked as soon as he saw his most frequent patient.

“We don’t know, Paul,” Ben said as he stepped back from the bed and let the doctor take over his position. “He came home shortly after dinner. Someone had beaten him and tied him to Cochise.”

“Has he been conscious at all?”

“Only for short periods.”

“He’s got some pretty severe bruises on his face and chest and some of those cuts are going to need stitching. I’m pretty certain he has some broken ribs here as well. I’ll know more after I finish my examination. By the way Roy should be here shortly. He had to break up a fight at the saloon or we would have ridden out together,” he said as his hands continued to expertly probe his young patients body.

After what seemed like an eternity to Ben and Hoss, but was really less than an hour, Paul Martin had finished stitching up the numerous small cuts on Joe’s body and face. He turned to Hoss and asked him to hold his brother while he taped up his ribs. Finally he mixed a packet of powder in a glass of water provided by Hop Sing. “I want to see if I can get him to drink this. It’s got something for pain as well as something to help him sleep.”

“He’s already sleeping,” Hoss commented.

“Not the kind of restful, healing sleep his body needs. This should keep him from thrashing around and causing any more damage,” Paul Martin explained as he lifted his patient’s head and held the glass to his lips. He grinned as Joe automatically swallowed the tiny amount of fluid in the glass. “Always could get him to take his medicine better if he was sleeping,” he said.

Ben, Hoss, and Hop Sing each smiled at the doctor’s comment. They’d all had the same thought as they watched little Joe take the medicine.

“He should sleep most of the day with that in him, Ben. He has two broken ribs, and I know the bruises look bad but they will fade with time and he will heal. It’s going to be a long time before he’s completely healthy and you have to make sure he stays in bed for the next couple of weeks. Most of all you have to keep him calm. Any more thrashing like what you described will only succeed in causing more damage to his already injured ribs.”

“He’ll stay in bed as long as you say, Paul,” Ben assured him.

“Hop Sing go make breakfast now.”

“That’s a great idea, Hop Sing,” Paul told him and then turned to the other men standing in the room. “ Once you’ve eaten breakfast I want you both to get some rest. I’ll stay here with little Joe.”

“I’m ok,” Ben said.

“Just hungry,” Hoss said.

“I don’t believe either of you. Look in a mirror and you’ll know why. Eat and then rest, doctor’s orders! Now let’s go down and get some coffee and wait for breakfast,” Paul said and held the door for the reluctant Cartwrights. “Come on, Joe’s going to sleep for a long time yet,” he said and the three men left the room.

Even through the haze of the drug-induced sleep, little Joe could see the man in black as he hit him over and over. His head rocked back with each new blow and small whimpering sounds escaped from his throat.

*****

Adam Cartwright looked down at his bruised and cut knuckles as he nudged Sport towards the familiar ranch house. He felt both happy and nervous at going home after what he’d done to his brother.

The fight that had driven him to leave home was still as fresh in his mind as the day it had taken place. He remembered the anger burning deep inside him at his younger brother’s blatant irresponsibility. Joe had cost the Ponderosa a huge timber contract because of a pretty face. He’d fallen victim to the oldest ploy in the world. Something Adam knew would never have happened if he’d gone to make the bid.

Roland Spencer of the Spencer lumber mill in Carson City had hired a woman to make sure that whoever came to represent the Cartwright family in the bidding war would not make it, and he’d succeeded. Joe had met the beautiful Lila Stanton and soon found he was helping her instead of his family. He missed out on placing his bid and the contract went to Spencer and his Lumber mill.

Adam sighed as he once again glanced down at his battered knuckles. ‘Oh well,” he thought, ‘maybe I finally got it out of my system.’

It seemed to him as if Sport was as glad as he was to be home. The horse literally pranced into the yard and went directly to the barn. Adam looked around and wondered where everyone was at this hour of the day, until he noticed Paul Martin’s buggy parked in front of the house. ‘What’s Paul doing here?’ he thought and hurried to stable Sport.

Paul Martin walked into the kitchen and poured himself a fresh cup of coffee, his third since he’d sent Ben, Hoss, and Hop Sing off to bed. He was headed back up to little Joe’s room when the door opened behind him. He turned to see who had arrived and was shocked and pleased to see Ben Cartwright’s eldest son. “Adam, you’re home!” he exclaimed.

“Doc, what’s wrong? Is it Pa?” Adam asked worriedly.

Paul Martin walked back down the stairs and placed his hand on the newcomers shoulder, “It’s not your father, Adam. It’s little Joe. Somebody beat him pretty badly yesterday.”

“Who? How bad is he?” Adam asked as he pulled off his jacket and scarf.

“We don’t know who, but Joe has some broken ribs and numerous cuts and bruises.”

“Is Pa up there with him?”

“No, I sent your father, Hoss, and Hop Sing to bed an hour ago. They were up all night with your brother. Why don’t you grab a coffee and join me in Joe’s room?”

“I could use something hot. All right, doc, I’ll be right up,” Adam said as he blew on his hands to warm them up.

Joe slept fitfully, his dreams tormented with visions of his brother. The man in black continually struck him over and over. Joe continued to stare into his eyes, so familiar yet so strange. He continued to see the malevolence in them as the man in black glared triumphantly down at his beaten body. Over and over he heard him say, “Oh this is going to be such a pleasure.”

Adam stepped into Joe’s bedroom and walked over to his bed. Purple colouring stood out on Joe’s face where he lay against the white pillow. Adam was appalled by what he saw. Bruising and swelling distorted his brother’s usually handsome face. Someone had brutally beaten him and Adam was livid. “Who would do something like this to him?” he asked aloud.

“I don’t know, Adam. Roy was out earlier but little Joe is in no shape to answer questions so he said he’d come back later.”

Joe heard the murmur of voices and tried to open his eyes. He succeeded in opening the one eye and tried to focus on the two figures standing by his bed. He groaned as the pain in his head threatened to make him close it again.

Adam heard his brother moan and hurried to stand before him. He bent close and spoke softly, “Hey, little brother.”

Joe heard the familiar voice speaking and opened his eye. Instantly he pushed away from the pair of eyes that stared back at him. The eyes were the same as the ones that haunted his nightmares yet something was different about them. Before his mind registered his brother’s presence he began to scream and pull away from the man he associated with his misery.

“Joe, what’s wrong?” Adam asked, immediately thinking his brother was still angry with him over the fight they’d had before he left.

Paul Martin watched as Joe’s face transformed into a mask of horror. The young man kept pushing his injured body further across the bed as if he were truly terrified of his own brother. “Joe, come on, young man, calm down,” he said as he moved Adam out of the way.

“Stay away from me, Adam!” Joe screamed as loudly as his injured ribs would allow.

“What’s going on here?” Ben asked as he hurried into the room, Hoss right behind him. Both men were shocked to see the oldest Cartwright brother staring blankly at the terrified young man on the bed.

“Adam!” Hoss exclaimed in a voice that was both happy and confused at the same time. He hurried towards his older brother and took him in a bear hug.

Adam instinctively slapped Hoss on the back. He pulled away and continued to watch his youngest brother on the bed. When Joe showed no signs of calming down he hurriedly left the room.

Ben watched the grief stricken look on his oldest sons face as he turned and left the room and wanted to follow, but the cries of his youngest son made him realize Joe needed his attention more. He hurried to the bed and stood next to the doctor.

“No,” Joe whimpered.

“It’s all right, Joe. I’m here,” Ben said softly and watched Joes one open eye for signs that he recognized him.

“St…stay away from me, Adam,” Joe whispered as he sank deep into the warm blankets.

“Pa, did he just say Adam?” Hoss asked confusedly.

Ben’s shocked face betrayed the fact that he’d indeed heard his youngest son’s cry. He sat beside him on the bed and ran his hands through Joe’s hair. “What did Adam do, Joe?” he asked.

“He…” suddenly Joe’s eye closed and his body went limp.

“Let me check him, Ben?” Paul said softly.

Ben moved away and stood beside his middle son. “Stay with him, Hoss. I’m going to talk to Adam.”

“What do you think he meant?” Hoss asked his father.

Ben knew he was talking about little Joe’s last statement but he didn’t have an answer. “I have no idea,” he told him as he walked out of the room. He found Adam sitting at the large dining room table, his hands wrapped around a steaming cup of coffee. He knew his oldest son was suffering by the way he hung his head and stared into the cup. “Son,” Ben said as he laid his hand on Adam’s right shoulder.

Adam had heard the approaching footsteps and knew they belonged to his father. He removed his hands from the cup and stood to enfold his father in his arms. Both men clung to each other briefly and then Ben sat in the seat next to his son. “I’m glad you’re home,” he said.

“Thanks, Pa. I wish Joe felt the same way,” Adam said sorrowfully.

“Joe’s in a lot of pain right now, Adam, and he doesn’t know what he’s saying. You wait till he realizes it’s you and he’ll tell you himself.”

“You didn’t see him, pa. He acted like he was scared to death of me. I wish I could take back what happened between us but I can’t,” Adam said and gently rubbed the bruises on his knuckles.

Ben noticed the fresh cuts and bruises on Adam’s hands and became concerned. “What happened?” he asked as he took them into his own hands.

“I had a run in with a couple of drifters. They wanted Sport and I didn’t want them to have him.”

“Who won?” Ben asked.

Adam’s eyes sparkled as he answered, “Sport’s in the barn.”

“Ah,” Ben said and smiled at his son. “Why don’t you come back upstairs and we’ll let Paul have a look at your hands?”

“My hands are fine, Pa, and I don’t think Joe wants to see me.”

“I’m sure he’s changed his mind by now. Come on,” Ben said firmly.

“All right,” Adam said and followed his father back upstairs and into his brother’s room.

Paul Martin watched the two men come into the room. “He’s sleeping, Ben,” he answered the unspoken question he knew the older Cartwright was sure to ask.

“What caused him to react the way he did?” Ben asked curiously.

“I’m not sure, Ben. Maybe he’d been having a nightmare and hadn’t been fully awake.”

“Or maybe he was remembering the fight we had,” Adam said.

“Now, Adam, you know little Joe doesn’t hold a grudge for long, at least not when it comes to his family,” Hoss tried to reassure him.

“Paul, can you have a look at Adam’s hands?” Ben asked.

“What happened to your hands, Adam?” Paul asked as he turned Adam’s hands over and examined the knuckles.

“I had a fight,” Adam said simply.

“That’s exactly what it looks like you did,” Paul said. “When did this happen?” he asked remembering the way Joe had reacted when he’d first seen his oldest brother.

“Early yesterday morning. Why?” Adam asked.

“Just curious,” Paul said as he felt each finger.

“Hey now! Wait a minute, Paul, you’re not thinking Adam had anything to do with what happened to his brother, are you?” Ben asked.

“No, not at all,” Paul said, although for a few moments he’d been thinking it was to much of a coincidence because of Joe’s strange reaction to his brother.

“I won’t have you accusing Adam of doing something like that,” Ben said angrily.

“I didn’t hurt Joe, Pa,” Adam said firmly.

“I know you didn’t, Son. We’ll find out who did this as soon as your brother is ready to talk about it,” Ben told him.

Hoss had been standing back, watching the exchange between his father, brother and the family doctor. He’d seen the fights between his brothers and had wondered how they’d been able to stop short of really hurting each other. He’d been surprised when Adam had finally lost his temper to the point of lifting his fist and hitting their youngest brother in the face. Adam had a volatile temper but he’d always kept it in check until that day. Now he found himself thinking about his two brothers and whether Adam was capable of this kind of vengeance.

Roy Coffee walked into little Joe’s room just as Paul Martin finished bandaging Adam’s right hand. His face lit up and he walked over to Ben’s eldest son, “When did you get back?” he asked fondly.

“About an hour ago,” Adam answered.

“Well I hope your back to stay,” Roy stated.

“Guess that all depends on little Joe,” Adam said sadly.

“I’m sure Joe has forgotten what happened between you two. By the way, Ben, how is he?”

“He was pretty beaten up, Roy,” Ben said as the sheriff walked over to the bed.

“Does he have any idea who did this to him?” Roy asked.

Three sets of eyes turned towards the man in black. Adam knew they didn’t really believe he had anything to do with little Joe’s beating, but he resented the way they’d instantly turned to him at Roy’s question. Angrily he turned and left the room.

Roy saw the simple exchange and knew something had happened to make Adam leave in such a hurry. “Somebody want to tell me what that was all about?” he asked.

“Little Joe reacted badly when he saw Adam,” Hoss tried to explain.

“What do you mean reacted badly?” Roy asked, shifting from concerned friend to Sheriff mode.

“Little Joe got upset when he saw him. I don’t think Joe’s over the fight he and his brother had before Adam left,” Ben told him.

“That’s not like Joe,” Roy said as he looked down on the sleeping Cartwright. “I’ve known Joe all his life and every time he has a fight with a member of his family it’s forgotten within a few days. Remember when Adam left for College and Joe was all upset. He couldn’t wait for Adam to get back. Joe don’t hold a grudge where his family is concerned so something else has happened here.”

“Look, Roy, when Adam walked into the room and Joe saw him he panicked and began to pull away from him,” Paul Martin told him.

“Why would he do that?” Roy asked.

“We don’t know,” Ben said simply.

“Did Joe explain why he reacted like that?”

“I asked Joe who did this to him and he said it was Adam,” Ben told him.

“Adam would never do this to his brother!” Roy said as he walked to the window. He glanced down at the yard just in time to see Adam Cartwright mount his horse and ride out. “I think maybe one of you should go down there and stop Adam from leaving,” he said.

Ben hurried to the window and was just in time to see Adam glance wistfully over his shoulder as he rode out of the yard. “Damn!” he said as he hurried out the door and down the stairs.

“Take my horse, Ben,” Roy called after the retreating man.

Ben grabbed his coat and threw it on as he quickly headed out of the house. He ran to Roy Coffee’s horse, hurriedly mounted and rode after his oldest son. Darkness continued to fall as Ben Cartwright followed his son towards Virginia City. It wasn’t long before he caught up to him.

“Adam, stop right now!” Ben ordered.

“Why, Pa?” Adam asked and Ben heard the heartbreaking sadness in his voice.

“Because it’s not your way,” Ben said softly.

“What’s not my way?” Adam asked his voice still laced with sadness.

“You would never run out while one of your brother’s is injured,” Ben told him.

“This is different, Pa. Joe told you I did this to him,” Adam said as he brought Sport to a stop. Snow began to fall as night descended.

“Yes he did,” Ben said. “I’d like to think he was hallucinating.”

“I saw your faces and you believed him,” Adam said looking towards the sky.

Ben thought about what Adam had told him and knew he was right. He could sense that Adam was close to the breaking point and brought Roy’s horse abreast of his sons. Gently he placed a consoling hand on his shoulder and spoke softly. “I don’t know what happened, Adam, but if you run out now it only makes you look guilty. More importantly if you run out then whoever did this to your brother gets away with it. I need you to stay, son. Joe will need you as soon as he realizes you weren’t the one that beat him.”

“He’s afraid of me, Pa. Joe and I have had our differences in the past but he’s never been afraid of me,” Adam’s voice quivered as he turned his gaze on his father.

“Adam, come back to the house. We’ll figure this out between us,” Ben told him.

Adam gazed down the road to Virginia City and then took in the concerned look on his father’s face. Without a word he turned his horse and slowly rode back towards the house.

*****

Hoss stood vigil at his younger brother’s window. The soft glow of light shining from the windows gave the empty yard a forlorn look. Even the lightly falling snow, which usually made Hoss glow with warmth, did nothing to brighten the mood. ‘It couldn’t have been Adam,’ he thought as he looked back at his sleeping brother. The vivid bruises on Joes face made a stark contrast to the pure white of the pillow covering and Hoss felt his heart tighten in anger. ‘I swear I’ll find out who did this to you and give them exactly what they deserve.’ He turned back to the window as the sound of riders drew his attention. He sighed with relief when he saw his father and brother ride in to the faint light.

*****

Joe’s nightmares continued relentlessly. His older brother advanced on him menacingly and Joe tried to make himself disappear before he could be hurt again. He found himself staring into the ice blue eyes and shivering in terror. ‘No!’ he cried as something about the man before him registered but before his mind could grasp what it was the first of many hard blows rained down on his body and he screamed. “Adam! Please don’t!” he cried out loud.

Hoss heard the terror in his brother’s voice and rushed to the bed just as his father, Adam, Paul, and Roy rushed into the room. “Easy, little Joe. It’s me, Hoss. I’m right here,” he said as he wrapped his arms protectively around his brother.

Joe fought against his brother’s grasp as he continued to be enthralled in his personal nightmare. “Please, Adam, don’t hit me again,” he cried as he pummelled Hoss’s large frame with his fists.

All eyes once again turned on Adam as they watched the youngest Cartwright fight the terror of his nightmare. Adam felt the guilt well up inside him once more as he watched the scene play out before him. Memories of shooting at a wolf but hitting his brother reared their ugly head. He fought against the emotions brought on by these memories and slowly advanced on the bed. “I won’t hit you, little brother,” he said and everyone heard the anguish in his soft voice as he sat on the bed.

“Joe, come on, you know Adam would never hurt you. He left because he thought he was going to hit you before, remember. Adam loves you, little brother. We all do,” Hoss told him.

Joe listened to the calming voice of his brother and the nightmare world seemed to slip away and he returned to a peaceful sleep.

Hoss felt his brother’s body relax and gently laid him back on the bed. He lifted tear filled eyes to meet his older brothers, “Who coulda done it to him, Adam?” he asked.

Adam put his hand on Hoss’s shoulder and held the man as his body trembled angrily. “I don’t know, Hoss, but I intend to find out,” he said.

“Now wait a minute, Adam,” Roy Coffee spoke from behind them. “I don’t want you taking the law into your own hands.”

Adam stood and rounded on the sheriff, “Somebody set this up to make Joe believe I beat him! Do you really think you can stop me?” he shouted angrily.

“I can and I will. I can throw you in jail right now because of the evidence,” Coffee told him.

“What evidence?” Adam asked.

“Your brother’s own words to start with,” Coffee stated harshly.

“Now hold on you two,” Ben said in a reasoning tone. “Adam didn’t do this to his brother and I know that for sure now. Yes, Adam,” he said when he saw the reaction his son had to his words. “I had my doubts when I heard what Joe had to say and saw the bruises on your knuckles when you rode in here but I know you and I know what kind of a man you are. You couldn’t hurt Joe if you wanted to.”

“Thanks, Pa,” Adam said and tried to hide just how much his father’s words had hurt him. He turned his dark brown eyes back to his brother and wondered whether things would ever be the same between them. He hated what had been done to his brother but even more he hated what had been done to their already fragile relationship. ‘I swear I’ll get the man who did this, Joe,’ he thought and brushed past his father before his eyes shed their tears.

“Ben, I want you to keep Adam from going after the man or men who did this,” Coffee stated.

“I don’t know if that’s possible, Roy. Adam is going to take this very personally. Someone used his body and face to do this to Joseph and it’s gonna be hard to keep him from finding out who. I may even help him,” Ben said softly.

“Me too,” Hoss reiterated.

“Don’t do it,” Coffee said flatly.

“Pa,” Joe called as he slowly opened his eye.

“I’m here, Joseph,” Ben said and sat on the bed.

“Why did Adam do this?” Joe asked; his voice laced with sorrow and pain.

“Joe, are you sure it was, Adam?” Ben asked.

“I saw him, Pa. His face was so angry. He… he just hit me over and over. He said he’d always wanted to do that to me.”

“Couldn’t it have been someone who just looked like Adam?” Hoss asked.

“No! I know what Adam looks like and it was him. He just kept hitting me,” Joe said and Paul Martin knew by the tremors that his patient couldn’t take much more.

Paul Martin poured a small amount of water into a glass and added a small envelope of powder. He mixed it thoroughly and passed it to Ben. “Make him drink this,” he told his friend.

“What is it?” Ben asked.

“A mild sedative. It should help him sleep.”

“No. I don’t want to sleep,” Joe said tremulously.

“Why, Joe,” Ben asked.

“I can see Adam’s eyes. He’s so angry with me.”

“I tell you what, little brother,” Hoss said. “You drink this and I’ll sit here with you and chase those nightmares away. How does that sound?

Joe turned his good eye towards his brother and smiled weakly. “Promise?”

“I promise I’ll stay right here,” Hoss smiled back, hiding how much it pained him to see his brothers injuries.

“Ok,” Joe said and slowly drank the liquid, his eye never leaving his brother.

Ben relinquished his seat to his second son and ushered the others out of the room.

“I mean it, Ben, I won’t have you, Adam, or Hoss interfering with the law,” Coffee said as the three men headed down the stairs.

“How do you plan on stopping us, Roy?” Adam asked from the dining room.

“I can have you all thrown in jail for your own protection,” Roy Coffee said and knew he was grasping at straws. If the Cartwright men got it in their heads to find the person or people responsible they’d do it and damn the consequences.

“But you won’t,” Ben said simply and poured a coffee from the pot in front of Adam.

“No I won’t,” Coffee said and accepted the cup Ben passed him.

*****

Roland Spencer grinned at the man in black seated across from him. “So tell me how badly you beat him,” he said sadistically.

The man in black grinned back at his employer; “Let’s just say that young Cartwright won’t be bidding on lumber contracts anytime soon.”

“Good. He almost beat me out last time despite Lila’s interference. As for his older brother I can think of no fitting punishment for Adam Cartwright than to have his brother swear that he’s the one who beat him up. Oh it’s just perfect,” Spencer laughed. “You do know that you’ll have to go back and finish the job on young Cartwright don’t you, Billy?”

“You mean kill him?” Billy Tucker smiled. “It’ll be my pleasure. When do you want me to take care of it?”

“I think you’ll have to hurt Joe Cartwright once more, just so he’ll keep saying it was his brother. I want him to have nightmares about his brother. Adam Cartwright will pay for all the times he stole business away from my father.”

“It’s the perfect revenge. Adam will be blamed for beating his brother and finally for his murder.”

“That’s exactly what I want to happen. You will kill little Joe Cartwright on Christmas Eve. I’d love to see the Cartwrights faces when they find the youngest dead and all the evidence points to his oldest brother,” he laughed maliciously.

“And the second beating?” Billy asked enthusiastically.

“In two weeks time, just as he’s getting over this one. That way the first beating by Adam will be fresh in his mind. Just make sure you get him alone!”

“Yes, sir, Mr. Spencer,” Billy said seriously. “I do like how your mind works,” he said as he left the office.

Roland Spencer looked up at the picture of his dead father and picked up his glass of champagne. He lifted it into the air and spoke softly. “To revenge, Father, yours and mine,” he said and downed the glass of cold liquid. Anger seeped into his mind and he threw the glass across the room.

*****

For the next week Adam made himself scarce. He stayed out late and left early. He still felt a sense of betrayal that his father and brothers thought he would beat little Joe. ‘How can they think I could do that to Joe?’ he asked himself as he stabled Sport in the barn. He patted his horse on the rump and walked to the doors. The lights were on in Little Joe’s room and he could see a figure moving around behind the closed curtains. He hadn’t ventured into his brother’s room since the first day he’d returned.

He knew he hadn’t been the one to beat Joe but the sense of guilt he felt at someone using his likeness to do it was tremendous. He’d walked by Joe’s room every night, but was unable to go in.

Finally he walked through the snow and up to the door of the house. Stamping his feet to remove the excess snow from his boots he was surprised when the door opened and his father stood before him.

“Thank God, Adam! Where have you been?” Ben asked worriedly.

“Just riding, Pa,” Adam answered as he entered the house and hung his coat and hat.

“I was worried. It’s so cold out there and the winds really picking up,” Ben said. “Why are you avoiding us, Son?” he asked simply.

“I’m not, Pa.”

“Yes you are. You’re gone before any of us get up, including Hop Sing, and you don’t return until after we’ve gone to bed,” Ben told him and saw Adam’s eye rise in surprise. “I’ve heard you come in each night, son.”

“I’m sorry, Pa. I just can’t seem to face any of you. Especially Joe.”

“You have nothing to feel guilty about, Adam. We know you didn’t do this to your brother.”

“Joe still thinks I did,” Adam said sadly.

“I think Joe really knows you didn’t do it. He’s just confused right now because of the pain. As soon as he’s given the chance to think about it he’ll come to the same conclusions we did.”

“What conclusions have you come to, Pa?” Adam asked as he sat in the Chair by the fire.

“That someone who looks very much like you did this to your brother in order to place the blame on you,” Ben told him as he sat on the couch.

“What makes you think that?” Adam asked rubbing his tired eyes.

“Look at the evidence, son. Someone beat your brother and made sure Cochise brought him home. You were returning home the same day and someone decides to pick a fight with you over Sport. You walk into the house the next day with your knuckles cut and bruised and your brother says it was you that beat him.”

“Whoever did this to Joe must’ve looked an awful lot like me, Pa. Otherwise Joe would have seen right through it.”

“I know. But it is possible. We have to figure out who would do this to you and Joe. Maybe both of you are intended victims. Maybe someone wants revenge on you and your brother. We just have to figure out who,” Ben explained.

“How is Joe, Pa?” Adam asked softly.

“He’s doing better but he seems to have everything confused. He can’t remember much about what happened. Maybe you should go see him,” Ben suggested.

“Not yet, Pa. I don’t think Joe’s ready to see me yet,” Adam said. “Thanks for the talk, Pa, but I’m really tired.”

“Ok, son. I will see you in the morning won’t I?” Ben asked.

“I guess so,” Adam said as he slowly walked up the stairs.

Ben Cartwright moved to the chair his son had vacated. He looked at the pictures of his son and their mothers on the mantle and felt a silent tear roll down his cheeks. ‘Please God. I need your help right now. I need to find out who did this so my sons can begin to heal. I wish I could make it all go away and make my family whole again. Adam is in such pain knowing that someone who looks like him did this to Joe. Joe is in so much pain because he still thinks it was his brother. Hoss is beside himself with worry over his two brothers. I love them all so much,’ he thought and closed his eyes.

*****

Joe opened his eyes and saw that he was alone in his room. The sun shone through the window and he pushed back the blanket and gingerly got out of bed. The last week had been a jumble of confused thoughts and nightmares. His body protested when he stood and slowly walked to the window. He looked out at the snow-covered yard and thought about his brother. ‘Why did you do it, Adam? I know I let you down in the Spencer deal but you didn’t have to do this,’ he thought as he looked down at his body. He felt as if someone were staring at him and glanced towards the barn. He jumped back in horror when he recognized his brother. Their eyes met and Joe shivered as his mind protested the fact that the man who’d beaten him was just a short distance away.

Stumbling back to his bed Joe shivered and pulled the blankets up around him. “Why, Adam, why?” he asked aloud.

“You ok, Joe?” Hoss asked as he entered the room with a breakfast tray.

“Just fine, Hoss,” Joe said and turned away from his brother.

“Hop Sing made you breakfast. Doc said you could have a normal breakfast today. It smells so good,” Hoss explained enthusiastically.

“Then you eat it,” Joe said and felt guilty for snapping at his brother. “I’m sorry, Hoss,” he said as he turned back to face the big man.

“I’m sorry too, Joe,” Hoss said.

“What have you got to be sorry for?”

“I’m sorry for what happened to you. I wish it had never happened. I wish things could be the way they were before Adam and you had that damn fight,” Hoss said as he placed the tray on the dresser.

“Yeah well, that ain’t gonna happen. Adam hates me and I hate him for what he did to me,” Joe said angrily.

“Are you sure it was Adam?” Hoss asked.

“I know what I saw, Hoss,” Joe said, his voice rising in frustration. “Why is it you and Pa always take his side. He beat me, don’t you understand that. I stood there and watched as my brother’s fists hit me over and over. I never want to see him again!”

“But, Joe,” Hoss tried.

“Just leave me alone, Hoss. You don’t believe me anyway,” Joe said and once more turned away from his brother.

*****

Adam heard the condemning words his brother spoke and fought the urge to run. Joe’s voice was cold when he said that he hated him and Adam turned away from the door. He walked to his room and lay down on his bed. Closing his eyes he thought about his relationship with his youngest brother.

He knew they loved each other but could never come to grips with their different views on life in general. He knew that his family came first and then the Ponderosa. He prided himself on always being there for his family and doing everything his father asked of him. He was always on time and always did that little bit extra to insure that the ranch ran smoothly, including the mining and timber rights.

He thought of Joe and how he interpreted his life. Joe lived life day to day. He was carefree and fun loving. He’d rather be fishing or playing poker than working on the ranch. Adam stood and walked to his bedroom window angry with himself. ‘That’s not really how Joe is. He does his work it just takes a little coaxing sometimes. Maybe I should change places with him and see what it’s like being the youngest. I’m so sorry that you’ve been hurt, little brother, but I promise you, I’ll find the people responsible,’ he thought.

“You ok, Son?”

Adam turned from the window and sat in a chair. “I don’t know, Pa. I keep thinking about the people who did this to Joe and I want to do the same thing to them. I want to use my fist on them until they black out like my brother did,” Adam said as he curled his hands into tight fists.

“That would be stooping to their level. I think we have to give Roy a chance to catch the people responsible.”

“It’s been over a week and he hasn’t found anything. I think it’s time we did a little searching of our own, Pa. Joe needs you and Hoss here with him but he doesn’t want or need me. I’m going to do a little investigating of my own and see what I can find out.”

“Adam, Joe needs you, he just hasn’t realized it yet,” Ben explained as he gazed into his son’s forlorn eyes. “I need you, Adam,” he said.

“Thanks, Pa, it means a lot to hear you say that. I mean all the evidence points to me. The fact that little Joe said it was me made you wonder. I know you didn’t know what to believe when you saw my fists and I don’t blame you but, Pa, I would never hurt any of you,” Adam said, turning back to the window.

Ben saw the pain and hurt in his son’s eyes and knew Adam needed him as much as Joe did. He placed his hand on Adam’s shoulder, “I won’t tell you that you’re wrong because that would be a lie. I had my doubts but when I looked into your eyes the day you came home I knew you could not have done it. Adam, you are a strong young man and I’ve seen you hold back from hitting your brother when someone else would have just let fly and be damned.”

“Thanks, Pa, I think I’ll pack a few things and see what I can find out.”

“Please don’t go, Adam,” Ben pleaded.

“I have to find out who did this, Pa. I can’t live with Joe hating me. I heard him tell Hoss that he hated me and I can’t live with that right now.”

“He doesn’t mean it, son, you know that. Even though Joe believes it was you that beat him, deep down he knows the truth and he’ll need you here when he does. Please don’t run away. That’s just not you,” Ben told him.

Adam knew he couldn’t leave even though it would be hard to stay and hear Joe scream in his sleep. “All right, Pa, I’ll stay. At least until Joe tells me he doesn’t want me here anymore.”

“Then you’ll be here for a long time,” Ben told him. “Now let’s go down and see what Hop Sing made for breakfast.”

“I’ll be down in a minute, Pa.”

“Ok, son,” Ben said and removed his hand from Adam’s shoulder. He left his oldest sons room and breathed a sigh of relief that he wouldn’t be leaving.

Adam followed a few minutes later but stopped by little Joe’s open door. His brother was supposed to be confined to bed but was instead standing by his open window. Adam could see Joe’s breath as it met the cold air coming in from outside. “Joe, you’ll catch a cold standing in the window like that,” he said instinctively.

Joe turned horrified eyes on his brother, “What do you care?” he asked.

“I don’t want you getting sick on top of the injuries you have,” Adam said but didn’t enter the room.

“You’re the one who gave me the injuries,” Joe said, his voiced tinged with sadness and pain.

“I didn’t, Joe,” Adam told him and began to walk into the room.

“I saw you big brother. Just go away and leave me alone. You may have Pa, Hoss and everyone else fooled but not me. I’ll never forgive you, Adam,” he said and continued to stare out the window. He wouldn’t meet his brother’s eyes and held his breath till he heard his retreating footsteps. ‘I may not be able to forgive you, Big brother,’ Joe thought as a silent tear rolled down his cheek. ‘But I’ll always love you.’

“Joseph, you get back in bed right now!” Ben ordered as he came into the room and hurried to close the window. He rubbed his arms to ward of the chill. He didn’t miss the thin stream of moisture on his sons face. “Are you ok, son?” he asked.

“Yeah, I’m just fine,” Joe said, a little too sarcastically.

“I know your hurting, son, but don’t speak to me like that,” Ben ordered.

“I’m sorry, Pa. I guess I’m just tired. I think I’ll get some sleep. Ok?”

“Sure, son, you do that and no more trips to the window,” Ben said as he pulled an extra blanket over Joe’s prone form. “Have a good rest, son, I’ll be up later to check on you.”

“Sure, Pa,” Joe said and closed his eyes. Sleep did not come easily as Joe kept hearing his brothers voice saying how much he was going to enjoy this interlaced with I didn’t, Joe. ‘I saw you, Adam. I know it was you,’ he thought as sleep finally overcame him.

Once again the nightmare took over and Joe could see the man in black advancing on him but the words were different this time and Joe no longer felt the terror the other nightmares had on him. The man’s words were jumbled as Joe’s mind finally focused on the eyes. There was something wrong with them. ‘The colour! You’re not, Adam!’ Joe screamed at him.

Oh this is going to be such a pleasure,” the nightmare Adam told him.

You can’t hurt me anymore! You’re not Adam.’ “Adam! Adam!” Joe screamed and bolted out of bed. His body immediately protested the quick movement and Joe sank down by his bed laughing while tears streamed down his cheeks, “Adam!” he called even as he saw his father, two brothers, and Hop Sing rush into his room. He tried to lift himself off the floor but grimaced at the pain from his injured ribs.

Three men rushed to his side to help him. He saw his oldest brother remain standing by the door and knew he had to say something. “I’m sorry, Adam,” he said and felt the others turn to the door.

Adam stood frozen to the spot. He was happy to see his brother smiling even though tears ran down his still bruised cheeks but he knew it would be short lived. Slowly Joe’s words sank in and he moved towards him. “What did you say, Joe?” he asked hopefully.

“I’m sorry, Adam. I’m so sorry,” Joe said as the others moved away to give the brothers a chance to talk.

“You have nothing to be sorry about, Joe,” Adam said as he reached down and helped his brother to his feet. The two men sat on the bed and neither spoke for a moment oblivious to the audience they had.

“I do, Adam. I should have known better. You left before because you didn’t want to hit me. How could I believe that you would come back here just to do this to me? I love you, big brother!” Joe exclaimed.

“I love you too, little brother,” Adam said and wrapped his arms around Joe’s trembling shoulders. “What changed your mind, Joe?”

“Something’s been nagging at me ever since this happened but I couldn’t figure out what it was.”

“That’s understandable. After all you were hurt pretty bad,” Adam told him.

“I know it wasn’t you but let me tell you, Adam, you have an evil twin out there. But now I know how to tell you apart.”

“How, son,” Ben asked as he, Hoss, and Hop Sing moved closer to the two men.

“The evil Adam has the coldest blue eyes you’ll ever see. There empty, almost lifeless.”

“What made you remember?” Hoss asked.

“Adam did,” Joe said simply.

“How did I make you remember, Joe? Adam asked confused.

“Remember when you came in here and said you didn’t do it?” at Adam’s nod, Joe continued. “I tried to sleep but kept hearing the evil Adam telling me how much he was going to enjoy it and then I’d hear you saying you didn’t do it. Well once I fell asleep the nightmare returned and this time I saw his eyes. I mean I really saw his eyes. They were cold and blue not warm and brown like Adams.”

“I’m sorry you had to go through that, Joe,” Adam said.

“Go through what, Adam. The nightmare. Don’t be, because it gave me back my brother,” Joe said happily.

“I’m sorry you were beaten by someone with my face and body,” Adam told him.

“He may have had your face and body but now I know it wasn’t you,” Joe told him. “I’m glad you’re home.”

“Thanks, Joe, that means a lot to me. I promise you I’ll find the man who did this to you.”

“I don’t want you to, Adam. Not right now anyway. I don’t want you going anywhere. I just got you back, big brother, and I want to keep you around. Besides,” Joe said his eyes lighting up with happiness. “Christmas is just around the corner.” Everyone broke into laughter at Joe’s comments. They all knew how much little Joe enjoyed Christmas and now they would be together as a family again.

*****

Billy Tucker had been watching the ranch house for five days waiting for his chance to get to Joe Cartwright. It seemed as if the perfect opportunity was about to present itself. He watched from the trees as Ben and Hoss Cartwright mounted their horses and rode out of the yard. Hop Sing had left earlier that day and still hadn’t returned. That left Adam and Joe Cartwright alone in the house. An evil grin spread over his face as he watched the house. He waited for the cover of darkness and began to edge his way towards the house his gun in hand. As he reached the door he knocked gently.

“I’ll get it, Joe,” Adam told his brother, who was lying on the couch before a warm fire.

“Hmm,” Joe said sleepily.

Adam walked to the door and opened it. His mind registered the face just as a gun connected with his temple and he slumped to the floor unconscious.

“Adam,” Joe called from the couch.

“Yeah, It’s me little brother,” Tucker said as he pulled Adam’s body out onto the porch. He left the door slightly ajar and advanced on the couch.

Joe heard the coldness in the voice and knew he was in trouble. Ignoring the slight protest from his ribs he pulled himself to a sitting position and then to his feet. He stared into the ice blue eyes of Adam’s twin.

“What do you want?” Joe asked in a shaky voice.

“Aren’t you happy to see me little brother?” Tucker asked.

“You’re not my brother,” Joe said and edged towards the stairs. ‘If I can get to my room, I can call for help,’ he thought. Joe made a lunge for the stairs but wasn’t quite fast enough and soon found a knife at his throat.

“I guess you’re not happy to see me, are you?” Tucker leered as he slowly ran the blade across his victim’s throat.

“No,” Joe whispered as he felt the blood trickle down his neck.

“Don’t worry I ain’t gonna kill you just yet. I’m just gonna mess you up a little,” Tucker laughed evilly. He pulled the knife away from Joe’s sticky neck and pulled him towards the kitchen.

Joe fought with all his strength but soon found himself in Hop Sings spotless kitchen. His nemesis was so much stronger than he was at the moment and he knew he was in trouble but thoughts of Adam invaded his mind. “Where’s my brother?” he asked as Tucker turned him so they were facing each other.

“He’s taking a little nap on the porch. Might have a headache when he wakes up though. Now let’s see what we’re going to do. I know,” Tucker said and lunged at Joe.

Joe saw the move but was unable to move as quickly as he normally would and felt a sharp pain in his right side. Blood quickly welled up and began to soak into his shirt.

“That gotta hurt,” Tucker said and once again lunged at the smaller man.

Joe moved to the left just as Tucker brought the knife down on him. Tucker swore as he missed his mark completely.

Joe kept moving towards the door that led from the kitchen to the outside. ‘Have to get help for Adam,’ he thought as his knees threatened to buckle. Finally he thought he was close enough and turned his back on the advancing man. His hand gripped the handle just as Tucker realised what he had planned.

“Oh no you don’t,” Tucker said and he drove the knife into Joe’s upper right shoulder.

Joe felt the sharp pain and his body slumped to the floor. Weakened from blood loss he watched through squinted eyes as the man knelt beside him, “I think that’s enough for today, little brother. I’ll be back to finish the job later,” he laughed as he opened the door and hurried away.

Pa, the house looks dark,” Hoss said as he followed his father into the barn.

Ben turned and glanced towards the house and immediately noticed the open front door, “Hoss, let’s check on Adam and Joe before we put the horses up,” Ben said as he tied Buck to the post outside the barn. Suddenly he began running towards the house as a feeling of dread spread through his already cold body. He heard Hoss following behind him and as they reached the porch they noticed a body pulled off to the side.

“Oh, God,” Ben said as he rushed to the fallen man. “Hoss, it’s Adam,” he said as he turned the figure over. He glanced around but could see no sign of little Joe.

“Pa, the house looks dark,” Hoss said as he followed his father into the barn.

Ben turned and glanced towards the house and immediately noticed the open front door, “Hoss, let’s check on Adam and Joe before we put the horses up,” Ben said as he tied Buck to the post outside the barn. Suddenly he began running towards the house as a feeling of dread spread through his already cold body. He heard Hoss following behind him and as they reached the porch they noticed a body pulled off to the side.

“Oh, God,” Ben said as he rushed to the fallen man. “Hoss, it’s Adam,” he said as he turned the figure over. He glanced around but could see no sign of little Joe.

“Is he alive?” Hoss asked as he bent to help his father.

“I think so, but he’s so cold. Help me get him inside,” Ben ordered as he pulled his son to his feet.

For the first time both men noticed the open door and Hoss looked worriedly at his father. “What if someone’s inside? Where’s Joe?” he asked, looking around.

“Whoever was here is long gone or they would have been out here by now. Come on, your brother is freezing as it is,” Ben said and stumbled with his burden towards the open door.

Between them they soon had Adam lying on the couch. Hoss lit a lamp while Ben covered Adam with a blanket and began rubbing his arms, “Better get a fire going, Hoss. I’m gonna find your brother.”

“Ok, Pa, but be careful.”

Ben headed for the stairs and after a thorough search came back downstairs. He could see that Hoss had the fire going and he hurried towards Hop Sing’s kitchen. The kitchen was completely dark and he reached for the lamp on the table. He lit the wick and his eyes were immediately drawn to his youngest son lying in a heap by the door, “No!” he cried as he took in the paleness of his skin.

Hoss heard his cry and hurried to the kitchen. One look at his brother and he knew Joe was in trouble. His father had bent down and picked little Joe up. Hoss held the door as he hurried into the living room with his burden.

“Put some blankets on the floor,” Ben told him as he sank into the chair by the fireplace, Joe’s limp body still in his arms.

“Shouldn’t we put him in his bed?” Hoss asked.

“It’s too cold upstairs. All the fires are out. Just get the blankets, Hoss,” he ordered.

Hoss ran upstairs and was soon back with the mattress off his younger brother’s bed. “Thought Joe’d be more comfortable on this,” he said.

“That’s fine, Hoss,” Ben said as he placed his youngest son on the mattress. “Go tell one of the hands to ride in for Dr. Martin,” he told him as he gently removed the rest of Joe’s clothing. He heard his son as he quickly made his way to the door. “Hold on, Adam, I’ll be with you as soon as I stop your brother’s wounds from bleeding,” he said as he heard low groans coming from the couch.

Adam’s mind swam in an ice-cold river of thought. His stomach protested the remnants of the meal he’d eaten earlier and he barely had time to lift his head before becoming violently ill.

Ben rushed to his side and held his oldest son as his body trembled. Finally Adam was able to lie back on the couch and Ben watched as he lapsed back into unconsciousness. He looked up as Hoss came back through the door.

“Charlie went for Doc Martin,” Hoss said as he took in the scene and knew exactly what had happened. He’d never had a strong stomach when it came to someone being sick but he knew his father needed his help. Moving into the kitchen he got a bucket and some cleaning rags from Hop Sing’s supplies and wordlessly cleaned the floor around Adam. As he cleaned he kept glancing from Adam to Joe and then to his father. “How are they, Pa?”

“Adam seems to have a severe concussion and Joe’s been stabbed in the shoulder and it looks as if someone took a swipe at his side. The shoulder wound is deep and has me worried. The one on his side is shallow and has already stopped bleeding. Thanks for cleaning that up, Son.”

“Welcome, Pa. I’m gonna throw these things out and make some coffee,” Hoss told him and once again Ben was left to care for his two sons. He wadded up some of the sheet he’d torn up and placed it under Joe’s shoulder wound. He then pressed him back into the mattress.

Ben had just finished with his youngest son when he heard his oldest son’s teeth chattering. ‘Nothing more I can do for Joe,’ he thought as he hurried to the couch. He could feel his son’s body trembling under the blankets and leaned close to Adam’s mouth, listening closely.

Between the chattering of his teeth and the shaking of his body Adam managed to gasp out, “C… cold, Pa, so cold.”

“I know you are son. We’ll get you warmed up,” Ben reassured him.

“Joe?” Adam gasped.

“He’s ok, Adam. He’s right here on the floor beside you. Just close your eyes and rest,” Ben told him as he reached under the blankets and began rubbing any exposed skin. He felt Adam’s trembling begin to subside as Hoss re-entered the room almost fifteen minutes later, a steaming pot of coffee and cups in his hands.

“How are they?” Hoss asked and realized how often he’d asked the same question since they’d arrived home to find his injured brothers.

“Adam came to for a few seconds but Joe hasn’t moved. He’s lost a lot of blood,” Ben said frankly.

Hoss smiled at his father but Ben could see it didn’t reach his eyes. “You know Joe, Pa, he’ll be fine. He’s a stubborn little Cu…”

“Hoss!” his father exclaimed sharply.

“Oh, sorry, Pa. He’s just so dadblamed stubborn. Just wait and see he’ll want to get out of bed tomorrow.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right, son,” Ben said.

“It’s finally starting to warm up in here,” Hoss said as he sat on the floor next to Joe. He reached out his hand and gently touched his brother’s cheek. “You’ll both be just fine,” he said as he looked from one brother to the other.

Paul Martin didn’t bother knocking as he hurried up to the front door of the Cartwright ranch, Roy Coffee following on his heels. They walked inside and took in the scene in the living room. Joe lay on a mattress on one side and Adam lay on the couch. Both men seemed to be unconscious. Hoss sat on the floor next to little Joe and Ben sat on the couch by a shivering Adam.

“Paul, Roy, thank God you’re here,” Ben said as he stood and walked towards his friend.

“What happened, Ben?” Roy asked as Paul hurried to Adam on the couch.

“I don’t know, Roy. We found Adam outside the door, unconscious, with no coat or nothing on and Joe was in the kitchen,” Ben explained.

“How bad are they?”

“Adam has a deep bruise over his right eye. I think he was hit as he opened the door. Joe’s been stabbed in the shoulder and side,” Ben said watching Paul as he carefully examined Adam’s head.

“Has he been awake at all?” Paul Martin asked.

“He came to twice. The first time he was sick, the second he was cold and shivering,” Ben explained.

“How long did he stay conscious?” Paul asked as he moved to the second patient.

“A minute or two the first time and not even that long the second time. He’ll be all right won’t he Paul?” Ben asked worriedly.

“He’s got a nasty bump on the head. He shows all the signs of a severe concussion. We’re gonna have to keep waking him every couple of hours just to make sure he’s ok. How long do you think he was outside?”

“At least a couple of hours,” Ben told him. “When we found him he was shivering violently.”

“Have to watch for pneumonia as well,” Paul said as he turned Joe on his side. Removing the makeshift bandage he began to clean Joe’s wound with the clean water Hoss placed before him. “This will need stitches,” Paul said to no one in particular. He washed the wound and began to stitch the cut together. As soon as he was finished he washed his bloodied hands in the water and reached for some clean bandages in his bag. He tightly bound Joe’s arm across his chest so there was no way he could move it around and tear open the stitches. Gently he placed Joe back on the mattress and removed the bandage from the wound in his side. ‘He’s lucky this isn’t deeper,’ he thought to himself and began cleaning the long shallow gash.

Ben, Hoss, and Roy watched in silence as Paul Martin completed his treatment of the second patient.

Paul once again washed his hands as he stood up from the mattress. “I think they’ll be all right, Ben. I’d like to move them both upstairs to their rooms,” he said.

“I’ll see if their rooms are warmed up yet,” Hoss said and went upstairs. He was back a few minutes later. “It’s nice and warm in their rooms,” he said.

“Let’s start with Adam,” Ben suggested. “That way we can put Joe on the couch while we fix up his bed.”

Without another word the four men moved the two injured men upstairs to their rooms. As they finished placing a still unconscious little Joe on his bed they heard a buggy pulling into the yard.

“That’s probably Hop Sing, Pa. I best go tell him what’s happened,” Hoss said.

“You go ahead, Hoss and ask him if he can make breakfast for everyone,” Ben said as he walked to the window. Daylight shone through the open drapes and Ben could see the family cook taking supplies from the buggy.

*****

“Hop Sing make breakfast for everybody but nobody eat!” Hop Sing exclaimed as he removed the plates of food from the large table.

“I’m sorry, Hop Sing,” Hoss said as he passed his plate of half eaten food.

“Hoss only eat one helping. Soon everybody be sick! Then what Hop Sing do?” he asked as he cleared the empty plates from in front of Roy and Paul. “At least company eat everything.”

“Thank-you, Hop Sing. It was delicious,” Roy and Paul said almost in unison.

“You welcome, Sheriff, Doctor,” Hop Sing said as he left the men to their thoughts.

“Have you found anything, Roy?” Ben asked.

“Clem is following the tracks in the snow but if it keeps coming down there’s little chance of finding him. I sent out telegrams to the surrounding towns two weeks ago asking the Sheriffs to keep an eye out for them. So far there’s been no word,” Roy explained.

“Someone must be hiding him. This guy has to be within riding distance of the Ponderosa. There has to be a way to narrow down the search,” Ben stated.

“Can you think of anyone with a grudge against Little Joe?” Roy asked

“I’ve been thinking about that since we found out it wasn’t Adam who beat him up,” Hoss said turning to his father, “Pa, do you think maybe someone’s after both Adam and little Joe. Maybe they want some kind of revenge and what better way than to make Joe hate Adam,” Hoss suggested.

“You may have something there, Hoss. I know Joe and Adam have their share of enemies, but this would mean it’s someone Joe and Adam both know,” Ben said.

“Can you think of anyone like that, Ben?” Roy asked.

“I can think of about four or five. Over the years the boys have all made enemies. Adam with the contracts, Joe with the horses, and Hoss with the herds it could be almost anyone,” Ben explained thoughtfully.

“But who could be after Joe and Adam but not you and Hoss? It has to be someone the two of them were involved with or they’d be after all of you,” Roy said.

“Not really. What better way to get to the whole family than by hurting some of us?” Ben asked.

“This just seems like it’s aimed specifically at Joe and Adam. Don’t get me wrong. I know it hurts both of you as well, but indirectly. Joe’s been beaten and stabbed and made to believe the beating at least was by his older brother. Now when he knows the truth, he’s stabbed and Adam is injured as well. I really think we have to concentrate on that,” Roy told them.

“I’ll check through the papers as soon as possible and see if there’s someone they were both involved with,” Ben said as he walked to the safe.

“Pa,” Hoss called.

“What is it Hoss?”

“I think maybe we should check on the last contract little Joe was supposed to bid on,” Hoss said even though it brought back memories of the day Adam had left the Ponderosa.

“Why do you say that, Son?” Ben asked.

“Cause Roland Spencer was involved with Adam and Little Joe. He set Joe up.”

“Who’s Roland Spencer?” Paul Martin asked.

“Roland Spencer owns the Spencer Lumber Mill. Adam was supposed to make a bid on a rather large contract but couldn’t make it. He asked Joe to go in his place. Joe ran into a little trouble with a woman and missed out on the bid,” Ben explained.

“What kind of trouble?” Roy asked curiously.

“Damsel in distress kinda trouble,” Hoss said.

“Yeah that sounds like Joe. He’s always had a weakness for damsel’s in distress,” Paul laughed and the others joined him.

The laughter didn’t last long as Ben pulled a stack of papers from the safe.

“Here it is,” he said after a few minutes. “God Bless Adam and his filing system. Joe would have beaten Spencer’s bid easily,” he said sadly, as memories of the fight between his eldest and youngest sons came back to haunt him.

“Is there a chance that Joe was set up by the woman?” Roy asked.

“We thought about that but couldn’t prove it,” Ben told him.

“Maybe it’s time we did some serious investigating,” Hoss suggested.

“I think you’re right, Hoss. As soon as Adam and Joe are feeling better I’m going to pay a visit on both Roland Spencer and Lila Stanton,” Ben told them.

“I think I should go, Pa,” Hoss said.

“Neither one of you should go,” Roy ordered. “I want your word that you won’t interfere,” Roy scolded.

“Until we find out who did this my sons are in danger. Look at them, Roy. Adam has a severe concussion and it’s possible he’ll catch pneumonia from laying out in the cold so long. Joe was just starting to recover from the beating and now he has two knife wounds. I can’t give you my word, Roy, so don’t ask me again,” Ben explained.

“That goes for me too,” Hoss reiterated.

“Can’t blame me for trying,” Roy said simply.

“I’m going to check my patients before I head back home,” Paul Martin told them.

“Thank you, Paul,” Ben said, following him up the stairs.

“Hoss,” Roy said shaking Hoss out of his reverie. “Don’t let your father do anything foolish.”

“I can’t speak for Pa, Roy, but I will tell you that I’m going to find out who’s doing this to my family!” Hoss explained.

“I’ve told you before not to take the law into your own hands.”

“This is different,” Hoss said. “This is my family and someone has gotta pay.”

“They will, Hoss. I promise you they will. You just have to have faith in the law,” Roy said.

“I hope your right, Roy,” Hoss said simply and the men lapsed into silence.

*****

“They know it wasn’t Adam, Mr. Spencer,” Tucker explained as he took the glass of amber liquid.

“Are you sure?” Spender asked.

“Yeah. I watched the house for two days before the others left them alone. Adam answered the door and when I went inside the kid knew it wasn’t his brother.”

“Damn!” Spencer said.

“What do you want me to do now?”

“I want you to hole up somewhere until I need you again,” Spencer said as he sipped his champagne thoughtfully.

“Where should I go? Tucker asked.

“Go stay with Lila,” Spencer ordered.

Tucker’s eyes lit up at the thought of the beautiful prostitute, “Will she have me?” he asked.

“She has no choice. If she doesn’t I’ll just turn a certain file over to the sheriff,” Spencer laughed.

“Tell me, Mr. Spencer, is there really a file?”

“Of course there is but not all of it’s true. I made up some of the more shall we say imaginative stuff,” Spencer grinned maliciously.

“She’s afraid of you,” Tucker said.

“Course she is. She knows Sheriff Parker and I have a monetary relationship. I pay him well to do as I say. Why do you think no ones spotted Adam Cartwright in town? Nobody even knows Roy Coffee is searching for his look alike,” Spencer laughed.

“So when do I go after Joe Cartwright again?”

Roland Spencer was thoughtful for a few minutes. Suddenly an evil grin came over his face, “I want you to bring Little Joe Cartwright here to me,” he said.

“I thought you wanted me to kill him,” Tucker said disappointedly.

“Oh, don’t worry you’ll get your chance to kill him but I want his brother to watch it,” Spencer explained.

“How are you gonna do that?” Tucker asked.

“You’ll just have to kidnap them both. I think a couple of days before Christmas would be a good time. That way you can kill them both as my Christmas gift to you,” Spencer laughed.

Tucker grinned, “Thank you, Mr. Spencer. This’ll be the best Christmas present I ever got.”

“Just make sure you don’t mess it up. Stay hidden at Lila’s until a week before Christmas then take some men and bring me the two Cartwrights.”

“Yes, Sir, I won’t let you down,” Tucker said enthusiastically as he left the room.

“Make sure you do,” Spencer said as the door closed and he was alone with the portrait of his father.

“To revenge, Father,” he grinned and was sure the portrait grinned back at him.

*****

“Adam, you have to stay in bed,” Hoss told his brother anxiously.

“Get out of my way, Hoss,” Adam told him angrily.

“What’s going on in here?” Ben asked as he hurried into the room.

“Pa, Adam wants to go see little Joe,” Hoss explained.

“You know what Paul told you, son,” Ben scolded.

“I know what he said but I feel fine, Pa,” Adam said softly. “But I have to see Joe.”

“Joe’s condition hasn’t changed, son. He’s still unconscious.”

“I still want to see him,” Adam said as he rubbed his tired eyes.

“I tell you what we’ll do,” Ben said when he saw the worry etched on Adam’s pale features. “I’ll let you see Joe for a couple of minutes and then it’s back to bed for you.”

“But,” Adam began.

“No buts, Adam, otherwise you stay here and I’m sure Hoss can find a way to keep you in bed. Right, Hoss?”

“Right, Pa,” Hoss grinned.

“What you have to realize, Adam, is that you’re not over the concussion yet. I’ve seen the way you cringe when you first open your eyes or when a bright light hits them. So do we have a deal?”

“Yes, sir,” Adam said and felt gentle hands reach down to lift him from his bed. As soon as he stood he knew what his father said was true. The room swam in front of his eyes and he tried to focus. He put all his weight on Hoss’s shoulder and was led from his room.

Ben Cartwright never missed anything where his son’s were concerned and today was no different. It had been three days since they’d found Adam and Joe. Adam had finally come to the night before and had been insisting on seeing his youngest brother ever since. He followed Adam and Hoss into little Joe’s room and smiled as Hop Sing stood up from the chair beside Joe’s bed. “Thank you, Hop Sing,” he said.

“Welcome, Mr. Cartwright,” Hop Sing said. “Hop Sing go make lunch now. Make Mr. Adam good soup.”

Ben watched as he left the room and turned his attention to his three sons, one lying pale on the bed, another sitting, but just as pale in the chair, and the other wearing a worried, troubled expression.

“Has he been awake at all, Pa,” Adam asked worriedly.

“No, he hasn’t, Son. We keep talking to him but he doesn’t seem to hear us. Maybe if you talk to him he’ll listen,” Ben said hopefully.

“I’ll try, Pa,” Adam said, unshed tears shining in his eyes. “Hey, little brother, don’t you think you’ve slept long enough?” Adam asked as he took his brother’s hand in his.

“Come on, Joe, please wake up,” Hoss pleaded as he touched his younger brother’s forehead.

“It’s time to wake up, Son,” Ben said softly.

“We need you, little Joe. Pa, Hoss, Hop Sing and I need you to come back to us. I may not tell you this very often, Joe, but I love you. I love you for being the little brother I’ve always wanted. I know we argue, scream and even fight sometimes but never forget how I feel. We’re a family and if one of us is missing then we’re not whole. Don’t let him win, Joe. Come back to us,” Adam poured his heart out and swiped at a tear that rolled down his pale cheeks.

Joe heard his family and fought his way through the fog that surrounded his brain. He heard Adam’s heartfelt words and found the strength to open his eyes. His hazel eyes met his brother’s worried brown eyes, “Adam, you’re alive,” he said in a scratchy, pain-laden voice.

“Course I’m alive, little brother,” Adam laughed.

“He said he left you out in the cold. I… I thought you were dead,” Joe gritted out.

“He’s very much alive,” Ben said and Joe met his father’s eyes.

“Pa, it hurts,” Joe said as pain wracked his weakened body.

Ben reached for the packet of powder that Paul Martin had left and mixed it with some water. He helped his son sit up so he could drink it.

“Thanks, pa,” Joe said and gazed into the eyes of his father and brothers. “Think I’ll get some more sleep,” he said as his eyes closed. “Maybe you should to, big brother, you’re looking kinda sickly,” he said as a small smile touched his lips.

“He’s right, Adam, it’s time for you to go back to bed,” Ben ordered.

“I’d like to sit with him for awhile,” Adam said.

Ben heard the pain in his oldest sons voice and shook his head. “Remember what I said, son. You’ve already been in here longer than I wanted but I am glad you were here when your brother woke up. Now come on back to your room,” Ben told him.

“Yes, sir,” Adam said as he relinquished his hold on Joe’s hand. Hoss half carried Adam back to his room and soon had him tucked into his bed. He watched as his brother succumbed to sleep before going back to Joe’s room.

“They’re going to be ok now, right, Pa?”

“I think so, Hoss. Now we just have to keep them safe from the madmen who did this to them.”

“We will, Pa,” Hoss tried to reassure his father.

The days passed slowly for both Adam and Joe as they recovered from their injuries. As soon as his doctor gave Adam the go-ahead he began to spend his days sitting with his younger brother. They played chess and Adam would read from one of his books. Joe’s injuries began to heal and two weeks after the attack he was finally told he could get out of bed.

Joe was sitting in the family room next to the warm fire, his feet planted on the coffee table. His thoughts were filled with Christmas and what he’d get his family. So far he’d been unable to go to Virginia City and was worried that he’d have nothing to give them Christmas morning.

“Joseph, get your feet off the table,” Ben said, smiling fondly. ‘Seems like things are getting back to normal,’ he thought.

“Sorry, Pa,” Joe said as he placed his feet on the floor. “When’s Hoss getting back?”

“He should be home sometime today according to his telegram,” Ben said. He’d sent Hoss to check into Roland Spencer. He wanted to find out what the man had been doing over the last few months. Hoss’s telegram had informed him that Spencer had been keeping his nose clean. Ben knew this could be a ruse. Roland Spencer had stated firmly that he believed the Cartwrights; Adam in particular, had been the cause of his father’s heart attack. The man had threatened Adam a few years ago and then had apologized saying it was just his grief over the loss of his father. Ben had his doubts about the man and wondered if he had plotted this sick revenge.

“That’s great, Pa, cause we have to look for the perfect Christmas tree,” Joe said happily.

“Christmas is still two weeks away, son, lots of time to get the tree,” Ben said.

“But it has to be the perfect tree,” Joe said anxiously.

“I’m sorry, Joe, but you’re not going out looking for a tree. You’re still not fully recovered from the attacks on you. Hoss and I can find a tree,” Ben stated. Little Joe didn’t know the extent of Ben’s worrying. He didn’t want to tempt fate by leaving Adam or Joe alone. There was always someone watching them. Adam was in the barn with Charlie. Hop Sing had been watching both of them if Hoss and Ben were absent and there was always an armed ranch hand secluded in the loft of the barn watching over the house. Because of the cold Ben changed them every two hours. The men were only too happy to help.

“But, Pa,” Joe protested, knowing it was a lost cause.

“No buts, son, you’ve been through a lot in the last few weeks.”

Maybe I can sneak out for a while when Pa goes to bed,’ Joe thought.

“I want you to promise me you won’t go out on your own,” Ben said. “Don’t tell me you weren’t thinking about just that, son? I know that look. Now give me your word.”

“I promise,” a chagrined Joe said.

“Good. Now let’s see what we can get for lunch,” Ben laughed at Joes innocent look and the two men went in search of Hop Sing.

Another week passed and still nothing happened. Ben and Hoss began to relax somewhat. He began to feel as if maybe it was all over but kept the guards in the loft and made sure Adam and Joe always had company.

“Hey, Joe,” Hoss called excitedly as he entered the house.

Joe had been reading in front of the fire when his brother had opened the door admitting a bitterly cold wind. “Hey, Hoss, hurry up and shut the door, will ya?” he called and pulled a blanket tightly around him.

‘Uh, oh sorry, little brother, I just wanted to tell you I found the perfect tree,” Hoss said his eyes beaming in happiness.

“You did!” Joe exclaimed. “That’s great. Where is it?” he asked.

“It’s about a mile north of here. I’ll go back and cut it down tomorrow. Oh it’s a real beauty, Joe.”

“I bet it is. What kind is it?” Joe asked.

“Why Ponderosa Pine, of course. What other kind of tree would we have?” Hoss laughed.

“Hoss.”

“Yes, Joe.”

“Can you take me into town?”

“You know what Pa says, Joe. He don’t want you or Adam going into town until after the attackers have been caught,” Hoss told him.

“I know, but, Hoss, I haven’t got any presents for you, Pa, Adam, or Hop Sing. Please, Hoss, I promise to stay close to you. I need to pick out some gifts,” Joe pleaded.

“I’d like to, little brother, but I can’t go against Pa on this one,” Hoss said. He knew how much little Joe loved Christmas. He knew how much time his brother put into finding that perfect gift. One year Joe had searched for a book for Adam and had finally found it three weeks before Christmas in San Francisco. Joe had ridden all the way there and back to make sure he got the book.

“I’m sorry I asked you, Hoss. I didn’t mean to put you on the spot.”

Ben Cartwright stood at the top of the stairs and his heart sank at the sorrow in his youngest sons voice. He made his way slowly down to the family room and sat next to his son. “Joe, I heard what you said to Hoss about going into the city. I need your word that you won’t go off on your own. I know it must seem like I’m always asking you for your word but I have to know your not going to do something foolish. The greatest Christmas gift you boys can give me is yourselves.”

“Yes, sir,” Joe said softly.

“Thank you, son.”

“That goes for me to, Joe. This will be the best Christmas ever so long as you, Adam, Pa, and Hop Sing are here,” Hoss said.

“Thanks, Hoss,” Joe said. “I’m feeling a little tired, Pa, I’m gonna go lie down for a while, Ok?”

“Sure, Joe, you go ahead. I’ll come get you when supper’s ready.”

Joe nodded his head and dejectedly headed up the stairs. He knew there was no way he could go to Virginia City now. His father had made him promise and he’d have to keep that promise.

“I wish I could do something for him, Pa,” Hoss said quietly.

“There may be something, son. Joe loves putting up the Christmas tree. Why don’t you and I go get one and we can do it early. Maybe we can brighten his spirits,” Ben told him and Hoss readily agreed.

Ben dressed and went to the barn to find his eldest son. “Adam,” he called as he entered the barn.

“In here, Pa,” Adam called from Cochise’s stall.

“What are you doing, Adam?” Ben asked curiously.

“I bought Joe the new saddle he’s been wanting and I decided to see how it looks on Cochise. What do you think?”

“He’ll love it,” Ben said as he walked around the horse.

“I hope so, Pa. I bought it while I was in Carson City this summer,” Adam said and suddenly his eyes lit up. “Pa, I wonder if Roland Spencer had something to do with what happened to Joe.”

“There’s no proof,” Ben said tiredly.

“I think it’s time I paid him a visit,” Adam said softly. “I’ll beat the proof out of him if I have to.”

“Hoss and I have been checking up on Spencer. If he had anything to do with it he’s covered his tracks very well,” Ben told him. “Promise me you won’t go after him.”

“I can’t promise that but I will promise to wait till after Christmas. Will that do?”

“You’re a grown Man, son. I can’t stop you from doing this but I want you to listen to your heart. I know you’ll do the right thing.”

“Why’d you come out here, Pa?”

“I came out to ask you to watch out for Joe. He’s a little down right now so Hoss and I decided to brighten his spirits with an early Christmas tree.”

“That sounds like just what he needs, Pa,” Adam said and realized it was something he wanted as well. Christmas was a reason to celebrate and they all needed that right now. “I’ll take the saddle off and then go keep Joe company. Hey, Charlie, tell Red he can go back to the bunkhouse. I don’t need a bodyguard anymore,” Adam said and grinned at his father. “You didn’t really think I didn’t know, did you?”

“No, I guess I didn’t. We’ll be back as soon as we get the tree,” Ben said as he walked to where Charlie had already saddled Chubb and Buck. He led the two horses outside and rode away with Hoss.

Joe lay on his bed quietly thinking. He had an open book in his hand but had given up on reading when he realized he’d read the same paragraph four times and still didn’t understand it. He’d watched his father and brother ride off over an hour ago. He got out of bed and made his way to the window just in time to see Adam, Charlie, and Red part ways. ‘Maybe I can interest Adam in a game of checkers,’ he thought with a grin. He walked downstairs to set up the board. Joe was about to check on his brother when the door finally opened. “Hey, big brother, how bout a game of checkers?”

“Maybe some other time, Joe, I have to take the buckboard out to Pa. Wanna go along with me?”

“Oh boy, do I ever,” Joe said, anxious to go anywhere.

“Get your coat on and meet me out front.”

“Sure, Adam,” he said excitedly.

Joe grabbed his winter coat, and threw on his scarf, hat, and gloves at the last minute, ‘Can’t have Adam scold me for not dressing properly,’ he thought happily.

“Where you go?” Hop Sing asked as he came out of the kitchen.

“Hey, Hop Sing, Adam and I are bringing the buckboard to Pa,” Joe told him as he pulled on his gloves.

“Joe and Adam not supposed to leave,” Hop Sing scolded in Chinese.

“Sorry, Hop Sing. Adam’s waiting for me,” Joe said as he went out the door and closed it hurriedly behind him. He ran to the buckboard and jumped up beside his brother. He was glad to see that there wasn’t as much snow has he’d thought. He glanced into the back and was surprised to see something covered by a blanket, “What’s you got back there, Adam?” he asked.

“Just some things Pa needs. Why don’t you drive, Joe?” Adam said as Hop Sing came out the door.

“Mr. Cartwright gonna be angry with both of you,” Hop Sing called.

“Pa knows,” Joe called back. “Pa did ask you to bring the buckboard didn’t he?” Joe asked as he drove the buckboard out of the yard.

“Of course he didn’t.”

Joe turned his gaze on his brother and met the ice blue eyes of his nightmares. He pulled up on the reigns and made to jump out.

“Want your brother to die?” Tucker asked coldly.

“No!” Joe said holding tightly to the reigns and glancing into the back once again.

“That’s your brother under there and if you don’t get started again I’ll shoot him.”

“All right,” Joe said dejectedly and began to drive the buckboard away from the safety of the Ponderosa.

Night had fallen by the time Ben and Hoss rode into the ranch yard. They were tired and cold but it didn’t dampen their spirits. Hoss got off Chubb and walked to the back of the big horse. A tall Ponderosa Pine spread out behind, covered in a fine dusting of snow.

“Joe’s gonna be so happy ain’t he, Pa?”

“He sure is, Son. Why don’t you go call Joe and Adam? It’s about time we got them to help,” Ben said with a smile.

“Ok, Pa,” Hoss said as he enthusiastically headed for the front door.

Ben smiled at the lumbering giant as he ran. Hoss’s large frame was not made for running especially when it was bundled into an oversized coat.

“Hey, Joe, Adam, come see what Pa and me brought home,” Hoss called as he opened the door.

“What’s all the yelling for?” Hop Sing called as he poked his head out the kitchen door.

“Pa and me got a surprise for little Joe and Adam. Where are they?”

“They not come back with you?”

“Come back with us? What are you talking about, Hop Sing?” Hoss asked and felt a shiver of apprehension flow down his spine.

“Little Joe and Mr. Adam left a couple of hours ago in the buckboard. Little Joe said they were going to bring it to Mr. Ben,” Hop Sing said, his voice tinged with worry.

“Pa, come quick,” Hoss called through the still open door.

“What is it, Son?” Ben asked, knowing in his heart that something was terribly wrong.

“Adam and little Joe left a couple of hours ago,” Hoss said.

“Left? Left for where?” Ben asked. ‘I hope Joe didn’t break his promise not to go into Virginia City,’ he thought.

“Little Joe tell Hop Sing he and brother Adam bring buckboard out to you. I tried to stop him but he wouldn’t listen. All Hop Sing’s fault, never should have let them go,” Hop Sing said worriedly.

“It’s not your fault, Hop Sing. But if it was Joe and Adam then where could they have gone?” Ben asked.

Hoss had a sinking sensation in his stomach when he heard his father’s musings. “Pa, you don’t suppose the attackers came back?” he asked.

“I hope not, Hoss. It’s too dark and cold out there to mount a proper search tonight. We’ll get some of the hands to help with a search at first light if they don’t come home. This is one time I pray to God that Joe did break his promise,” Ben said as he sank into a chair in the dining room.

“Maybe we should go tonight,” Hoss suggested.

“Don’t you think I want to, son? There’s just no way to find them in the dark,” Ben said, shaking his head at Hoss’s downfallen expression. “We’ll go at first light. Will you go out to the bunkhouse and ask for volunteers?”

“Sure, Pa,” Hoss answered as he walked to the door. “Couldn’t we take one of the lanterns and search for tracks?” he asked as he touched the heavy door.

“It’s freezing out there, Hoss. It’s better to wait for the light. We’ll send a man into Virginia City tomorrow to let Roy know. For now there’s nothing we can do,” Ben said once again hating being the voice of reason in an unreasonable situation.

“Yes, Sir,” Hoss agreed, knowing it hurt his father to wait just as much as it hurt him. His father needed him now more than ever. Wherever Joe and Adam were they had each other. He’d have to be strong for his father if Joe and Adam were in the hands of a madman. ‘Please, God, keep my brother’s safe,” he thought as he hurried through the cold to the bunkhouse.

*****

Joe drove the buckboard through the dwindling daylight. He was cold, tired and worried about the unmoving figure in the back. The man sitting next to him had stolen Adam’s coat and Joe hoped he had something else to keep him warm.

Billy Tucker grinned each time Joe looked into the back. “He’ll be fine as long as you cooperate,” Tucker laughed.

“You took his coat,” Joe stated angrily.

“Don’t worry I put mine on him after I struck him in the head. Poor fella dropped like a rock in water. I sure hope he’s got a hard head cause the boss wants both of you alive. I think he’s planning a special Christmas for both of you.”

“Who’s your boss?” Joe asked hoping to catch him off guard.

“Well now that’s something you don’t need to know right now. Pull into that grove of trees yonder,” Tucker ordered.

“What are you going to do?” Joe asked as he once again turned his head and glanced into the back of the buckboard.

“Oh don’t worry, little brother…”

“I’m not your little brother so stop calling me that.”

“Ain’t to friendly, are ya?”

“You’re not my friend,” Joe said flatly.

“That’s right I’m not. I’m your worst nightmare, little brother.”

“You’re not a nightmare. A nightmare is something that scares me. You don’t scare me,” Joe said

“I don’t scare you? Then tell me what I do to you, little brother?”

“You sicken me. You’re a coward who hides behind someone else’s identity. Even now you try to use something that my real brothers use when they call me. You’re nothing and you always will be nothing!” Joe said angrily.

Billy Tucker’s anger was swift as he swung his fist and struck Joe in the mouth.

Joe felt warm blood rise from his split lip and wiped it on his glove, “Coward,” he said softly.

“You’ll pay for that, little brother,” Tucker said and grabbed the reigns from Joe’s gloved hands. He pulled the horses to a stop and Joe immediately attacked him. As soon as he’d made his move he felt and heard a gun being cocked at his head. He ceased his fighting and soon found himself bound and gagged and thrown into a new covered wagon. He felt Adam’s prone figure next to him.

Adam moaned as he turned to Joe. Neither man could speak but the expression in their eyes spoke volumes. They knew they were in deep trouble.

*****

Ben and Hoss waited impatiently for Roy to deputize the posse. As soon as Roy finished they mounted their horses and rode off in the direction of Carson City. Ben was sure that was where they would find his missing sons. Riding single file down the centre of the snow-covered trail the men found it slow going.

“It’s gonna take us a long time to get to Carson City, Ben,” Roy explained as he pulled his horse up next to Bens.

“I know, Roy. I just wish it hadn’t snowed again last night.”

“What makes you think Adam and Joe are there?” Roy asked.

“Remember when you asked about the boys having enemies?” Ben asked.

“Course I do. Is there someone in Carson City you think is behind this?”

“There is,” Ben said.

“Who?”

“A man named Roland Spencer. Have you heard of him?”

“Who hasn’t?” Roy asked. “He inherited the Spencer Lumber Mill after his father died. What makes you think it’s him?”

“Call it a gut feeling, Roy. Adam was supposed to go to Carson City to bid on a contract but couldn’t make it. Joe went in his place. We’re pretty certain Spencer set Joe up so he wouldn’t be able to place his bid,” Ben explained.

“I’ve learned over the years to trust your gut instincts, Ben. I want you and Hoss to give me your word you won’t do anything foolish.”

“Don’t ask me to do that, Roy,” Ben said.

“It’s my job to bring the man in if he is guilty.”

“It’s my job to protect my sons,” Ben told him as he snuggled his chin down into his coat to ward off the encroaching cold wind.

Roy knew there was no way he’d get Ben or Hoss to give their words on this. He’d have to keep an eye on them to make sure they did nothing foolish. Fighting against the bitter wind he made his horse move a little faster.

“Make sure them ropes are good and tight,” Tucker told his two buddies, Mike Wilson and Jerry Stanton, Lila’s brother. “I’m gonna get some wood for the fire.”

“Why don’t ya make one of the Cartwrights get it? It’s mighty cold out there,” Stanton suggested.

“That’s not a bad idea, Jerry,” Tucker said as an evil gleam came to his eyes. “Now which one should I take?” he asked glancing from one Cartwright to the other. “I think I’ll take the kid,” he laughed as he pulled Joe roughly to his feet, “After all his brother probably has a real bad headache.”

Adam’s gag had been removed and he glared angrily at Billy Tucker. “What’s the matter? Can’t handle a full grown man?” he asked.

Joe fought back his own icy retort to his brother. He hated when Adam and Hoss flaunted their age and called him a kid but knew his brother was trying to protect him. “I’ll be fine, Adam,” he said as he met his brother’s eyes.

“Come on, Kid, there’s a whole lot of wood to gather out there and if you try anything your brother’s a dead man. Got it?”

“I got it,” Joe grated out in the same tone Tucker had used.

“One more thing, Kid.” Tucked said.

“What?”

“Take off your coat.”

“What? Why?” Joe asked.

“You can’t make him go out there without a coat. He’ll freeze,” Adam stated angrily.

“Oh, he’ll be warm enough gathering the wood, sides he’ll need the coat to carry the wood in,” Tucker laughed.

“Then let him take my coat,” Adam ordered.

“If you look closely you’ll see I’m wearin your coat. Now just be quiet so your brother and I can get some wood,” Tucker said as he roughly shoved the dirty gag back in Adam’s protesting mouth.

“I’ll be fine, Adam,” Joe said as his hands were untied and his coat removed. Together with Tucker he left the cabin and went out into the cold.

Adam waited anxiously for his brother to return. He worried about Joe and his bouts with pneumonia. He prayed that this was one time Joe would be able to stay healthy in spite of his lack of protection from the elements. Finally the door opened and his brother stepped through, his arms laden down with wood as he shivered against the cold. Their eye’s met and Joe smiled through chattering teeth.

“Bring that over here,” Wilson ordered.

Joe dumped the load of wood on the floor next to Wilson and began putting his coat back on.

“That’s not enough for the night, kid. Let’s go get some more,” Tucker said as he opened the door admitting a bitterly cold wind.

Joe stood on aching legs and once again stepped through the door. Once outside he headed to the stockpile of wood and began to load up his coat. The snow around the woodpile was high and as Joe stepped up to the stack he felt some of it get into his boots. Finally he lifted the full coat and headed back to the door.

Tucker stood by the door and opened it for Joe to bring in his burden. Once again he dropped the bundle next to the fireplace and without a word headed out the door. Tucker made him make two more trips and finally told him he could put his coat back on. Joe glanced down at his gloves and saw they were ripped to shreds from pulling the frozen logs off the pile. His coat was also torn but it was better than nothing. He reached down to dump the snow from his boots and found he was to late as it had melted and his socks were soaked through. Slowly he put his boots back on against the cold of the cabin and then pulled on his damaged coat. Finally he stood as straight and tall as he could and glared angrily at Tucker.

“Tie him up, Jerry,” Tucker ordered as he walked to the warm fire Wilson had blazing in the pit.

“Where do you want him now?” Stanton asked once he finished tying Joe up.

“Put him next to his brother,” Tucker said. “That way we can keep an eye on the two of them.”

Stanton did as he was told and joined his partners at the fire, “You gonna cook something, Mike?” he asked.

“Got some meat left from that deer I shot, so I’m gonna make some stew,” Wilson said as he placed an old, beat-up, black cauldron over the fire. The snow he’d filled the pot with began to melt instantly and he sent Stanton outside to get more.

Tucker walked towards his prisoners and stood over them menacingly, “You ain’t so high and mighty now, are you?” he asked as he removed their gags.

“Who are you?” Adam asked, curious as to who the man with his face was.

“The names Billy Tucker,” he said as he sized up the other mans familiar face. “You and me could be brothers,” he said.

“Never!” Adam said vehemently.

“You’re probably right. Less of course your Pa was runnin round on your Ma,” Tucker laughed as Adam and Joe fought against their ropes. Both men felt anger at this mans insult towards their father. They knew Ben Cartwright would never have had an affair. He loved each of his wives too much for that.

“My father would never have sired an animal like you,” Adam grated out through clenched teeth. He was immediately rewarded with a strong backhand to the face.

“Shut up,” Tucker ordered, the anger evident in his cold, blue eyes.

Adam felt the trickle of blood from his split lip and was ready to say something else but was stopped by his brother’s words.

“The truth hurts, doesn’t it?” Joe said.

Adam watched helplessly as Tucker pulled Joe to his feet and held a gun to his head. “You’re a dead man!” he exclaimed as he pulled the trigger.

“No!” Adam screamed and watched as his brother slumped to the floor. It took a minute before he realized there had only been the sound of a hammer but no gunshot. There was also no sign of blood.

Suddenly the room was filled with hideous laughter, “Hey, Billy, did you pull that old empty revolver trick on the poor kid?” Wilson asked.

Tucker grinned down at Adam and his unconscious brother, “I sure did,” he laughed.

“Musta scared the kid half to death,” Stanton laughed as he stood next to Tucker.

“Probably. He’s also gonna have a mighty fine headache just like his brother there. The hand is quicker than the eye,” Tucker said as he glared at Adam. “While you only had eyes for the gun I hit your brother from behind. Scared you into believing he’d been shot, didn’t I?” Ticker asked.

“Who’s paying you to do this?” Adam asked as he watched Joe’s chest rise and fall.

“That’s none of your business,” Tucker told him.

“I can get you enough money to make Spencer look poor,” Adam tried.

“Mr. Spencer pays us just fine,” Stanton said from behind Tucker.

Tucker heard the condemning words and turned on Stanton. He held him by the shirt and hit him over and over. “You stupid little fool. Can’t you tell when someone’s fishing for information. Why I oughta take you outside and shoot you and leave your body for the wolves.

“You’ll kill him, Billy,” Wilson said as he placed a restraining hand on Tucker’s shoulder.

Tucker dropped his prize and turned on the newcomer. Before he could hit his friend Wilson pulled his gun.

“Stop it right now, Billy. Remember what Mr. Spencer said. He needs Jerry Stanton to keep Lila in line. If you kill him, Miss Stanton will go to the sheriff,” Wilson said calmly.

“The stupid fool told. Don’t you understand they know who’s paying for this,” Tucker said angrily.

“What difference does it make they’re dead men anyway, right?”

Tucker’s face filled with dawning realization. “I almost forgot about that,” he said. “Get that mess out of the middle of the floor,” he ordered.

“Where should I put him?”

“I don’t care! You can throw him out in the snow if you like,” Tucker said as he poured himself a cup of coffee from the new pot Wilson had brewed.

Wilson helped Stanton over to a small cot and dropped him unceremoniously onto it. He then joined Tucker at the table for a coffee.

Adam waited anxiously for his brother’s eyes to open. When they finally did he breathed a sigh of relief. “Joe,” Adam said quietly.

“Am I dead, Adam?” Joe asked painfully.

“No, Joe, there were no bullets in the gun,” Adam explained.

“Did I faint?” Joe asked weakly.

“No. He hit you at the same time he pulled the trigger.”

“No wonder my head hurts,” Joe said as he pulled himself up beside his brother. He closed his eyes and rested his head against Adam’s shoulder.

Adam felt Joe’s head hit his shoulder and tried not to jostle him. Joe had been through so much over the past month or so and he wanted him to rest for a while. Soon his own heavy-lidded eyes closed and he slept as well.

“Let me talk to him, Ben,” Roy said as the posse pulled to a stop in front of the Carson City Sheriff’s office.

“I’m coming with you, Roy,” Ben stated.

“Me too,” Hoss said as he dismounted.

Shaking his head Roy led the way into the small jailhouse. A rather large obnoxious looking man sat behind the desk. Roy could tell the man was lazy and probably didn’t do much for the office.

“What can I do for you fellas?” he asked as crumbs from his sandwich dripped onto his already dirty shirt.

“We’re looking for the Sheriff,” Roy told him.

“You’re looking at him. Names Paul Shafer and as I said before what can I do for you?”

“Sheriff, I’m looking for my sons,” Ben said, hiding his disgust over the mans behaviour and manners.

“I’m afraid I can’t help ya,” Shafer said.

“What do you mean you can’t help me?” Ben asked.

“Haven’t seen em,” Shafer said as he swallowed a mouthful of beer from a grimy glass.

“We haven’t even told you what they look like,” Roy said angrily.

“Who are you?” Shafer asked curiously as he wiped his mouth on his sleeve.

“Roy Coffee, and I am the Sheriff in Virginia City. This is Ben Cartwright and his son Hoss,” Coffee told him contemptuously.

“A fellow lawman,” Shafer said and rose from his untidy desk. “Pleased to meet you.”

Roy looked at the dirty hand offered to him. He placed his hand in other mans cold greasy one and pulled it back immediately. “Are you gonna help us?” he asked.

“Told ya I never saw em.”

Hoss pushed his way to the front and stood before the sheriff, “Are you sure you’re the Sheriff cause you sure don’t seem like a real Sheriff,” he said as his anger boiled over.

“I don’t have to take this from you. I’d advise you to keep quiet or you’ll find yourself as a guest in my jail.”

“Quiet, Hoss,” Roy told him before he could say anything else. “Look, Sheriff Shafer, is it ok with you if we look around your city?”

“Look all you want but I tell you they ain’t here.”

“Can you tell me where I can find Roland Spencer?” Roy asked.

“Mr. Spencer is a busy man. What do you want to see him for?”

“We just want to ask him a few questions,” Roy said impatiently.

“He’s not here.”

Roy watched as the sheriff bit into his sandwich as if he were dismissing them. He was disgusted with this man for even wearing a sheriff’s badge. The man looked as if he needed to soak in a creek for a week. Shaking his head he reached across the desk and pulled Shafer up by his collar, “You are a disgrace to this office and I’m gonna see that the governor hears about this. You’d better clean up your act and tell me where to find Roland Spencer. Then you’d better go take a bath,” Roy said dropping his hands from the man’s collar and flipping a coin into his lap.

Shafer shook in his chair. He’d been given this job by Roland Spencer, not by the town and knew if Roy Coffee went to the governor he’d be out on his tail. This was a job he’d always dreamed of, one where he didn’t have to work. If trouble came to town Spencer and his men took care of it. Now he was facing three men he didn’t know and he was terrified. He reached for his gun but was stopped as a massive hand clamped over his wrist.

“I wouldn’t,” Hoss said, his voice dangerously quiet.

“You’d better get your hands off me, boy,” he said trying to put some authority into his voice but failing miserably.

“Where’s Spencer?” Hoss asked.

“I told ya he’s outta town, now get your hands off me or I’ll throw you in my jail,” Shafer said.

“Let him go, Hoss,” Ben said. “He’s not worth it. Roy won’t be the only one reporting to the governor.”

Hoss released Shafer’s shirt and watched as he dropped unceremoniously into the chair. “Guess you’re right, Pa.”

“Get outta my jail and outta Carson City, or I’ll have to arrest ya,” Shafer said.

“Don’t threaten me, Shafer,” Roy said. “I don’t know how you got this job but you won’t hold it for long. Come on, Ben, Hoss, I want to make a stop at the telegraph office.”

Shafer wanted to stop the three men but knew there was nothing he could do. The people of Carson City hated him and wanted him out of office. If they found out he had locked up not only Virginia Cities Sheriff but also two of its wealthiest citizens he’d be thrown into his own cell. As soon as the door closed behind them he grabbed his coat and hurried out of his office.

*****

“You were right, Pa, here he comes now,” Hoss said as he watched the so-called Sheriff hurry towards the hotel.

“Let’s follow him,” Ben said and the two men hurried after Shafer.

Shafer entered the hotel and hurried up the stairs. He stopped in front of a door and knocked nervously.

“Come.”

He opened the door and saw Roland Spencer sitting at a large wooden desk. He hurriedly closed the door behind him and shuffled over to the desk, “The Sheriff from Virginia City is here and he brought the Cartwrights,” he gasped breathlessly.

Spencer glared at Shafer angrily, “You fool, why did you come here? You led them straight to me!”

“I came to warn you. I thought you’d need to know.”

“I don’t pay you to think. I pay you to keep people away from here. Go back and sit in your office till I need you.”

“Yes, Sir,” Shafer said fearfully.

“Pa, He just came out of the last room,” Hoss whispered as they watched Shafer leave the room.

“Let’s see who’s in there,” Ben said and walked up to the door. Without knocking he shoved the door open to reveal a middle-aged man sitting at a desk.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Spencer asked angrily.

“Roland Spencer?” Ben asked.

“That’s right and who are you?”

“Ben Cartwright, this is my son, Hoss. I believe you know my other sons, Adam and Joe?”

“Why yes, I think I do. We’ve bid on a few of the same contracts,” Spencer explained.

Ben was somewhat taken aback by Spencer’s quick admission and then realized he’d have to admit to knowing them because of the contract negotiations. “Where are they?” he asked angrily.

“Now, Mr. Cartwright, if you can’t keep tabs on your own sons how do you expect me to?” Spencer asked.

“My sons have been kidnapped, Spencer,” Ben said deliberately leaving off the Mr. “And I think you had something to do with it.”

“Why would I do that?”

“Because you’re just like your father,” Ben said harshly and saw the flicker of anger that flashed in Spencer’s eyes. “He was a vindictive man when he was alive.”

“You have no right to talk about my father,” Spencer told him angrily. “Get out of my office or I’ll have you arrested.”

“By that no-good Sheriff of yours?” Hoss laughed.

“No,” Spencer said snidely. “By my own hand-picked deputies. Boys escort these men to jail.”

Ben and Hoss turned in time to see two men carrying guns enter the room, “You heard Mr. Spencer. Remove those guns and let’s go,” the taller of the two ordered.

Ben and Hoss stared down the muzzle of the gun pointed at him and knew they had no choice. Slowly they removed their guns and dropped them to the floor.

“Thank you, gentlemen, this way,” the shorter man ordered.

Roy came out of the telegraph office just in time to see Hoss and Ben being shoved through the door of the jailhouse. He knew if he were to go over to the jail alone he’d be thrown in with them. He looked around and headed for retired Judge Arthur Reynolds home. The man had tried many cases in Virginia City and knew Ben Cartwright personally. If anyone could help, it would be him. Roy knocked loudly on the door and entered when a gruff voice told him to come in.

Roy walked into the house and Reynolds stood up from his chair as soon as he recognized the man who’d entered. “Well, well, Roy Coffee, what are you doing in Carson City? Don’t tell me we’ve finally managed to convince you to come to work for us?”

“Sorry to disappoint you, Art, but that’s not why I’m here.”

“Can’t fault a man for trying,” Reynolds said. “What can I do for you?” he asked when he noticed the worried frown on Roy’s face.

“Ben Cartwright and his son, Hoss, were just put in your jail.”

“Why?” Reynolds asked angrily.

“Probably because we’ve been asking about Roland Spencer,” Roy said.

“Roland Spencer owns our so-called Sheriff. What’s Spencer done now?”

“We think he had something to do with the beating of little Joe Cartwright,” Roy said.

“Papers said it was done by his brother, Adam,” Reynolds said.

“Papers were wrong. There’s a man out there who looks just like Adam Cartwright, except he has blue eyes.”

“How is little Joe?”

“He was stabbed by this same man and his brother Adam was knocked out and left out in the cold to die.”

Arthur Reynolds face grew more concerned as he listened to what Coffee told him. “Are they ok?”

“They were taken from their ranch sometime early last night and we think Spencer is involved.”

“Damn! That sounds like something Spencer would do. He’s just like his father, ruthless and mean. Let’s go get Ben and his son out of jail,” Reynolds said grabbing his coat.

“How?” Coffee asked.

“This towns fed up with Sheriff Shafer,” Reynolds explained. “It won’t be a problem getting some of them to come to the jail with us. Most of the businessmen in this city know Ben personally and they won’t stand for this,” Reynolds said as he closed the door of his house.

*****

“Joe,” Adam called his brothers name softly. The fire had died down and Stanton had fallen asleep at the table. The only lamp had gone out hours ago and only the dwindling fire cast shadows. “Joe,” Adam called again and was relieved as his brother moaned softly and began to move. “Sh, Joe, I’ve almost got my ropes undone but I’m gonna need your help.”

Joe’s head pounded and he could barely move his stiff body, “Adam,” he said.

“Listen, Joe, everyone’s asleep. I’m gonna see if I can get the ropes off and grab one of the guns. I need you to lay still until I cut your ropes.”

“No, Adam, untie me now. We’ll have a better chance if we’re both free,” Joe explained.

Adam looked at his brother and realized he was right. Between the two of them they would be able to attack from both sides. Carefully, without too much movement, Adam began the tedious job of untying his brother’s ropes. Both brothers breathed a sigh of relief when the ropes finally dropped away. Joe kept his hands behind him for a few seconds when he heard Stanton mumble something in his sleep.

Stanton opened his eyes and glanced sleepily at the prisoners, “Still here, I see,” he mumbled and closed his eyes to sleep once more.

*****

“Shafer, this town is sick and tired of you and it’s high time we did something about it,” Reynolds said as he slammed the jailhouse doors open and stepped inside.

“Now, Judge, what seems to be the problem?” Shafer asked shakily. He was surprised to see the old man was alone.

“The problem is you,” the retired judge told him. “You are a disgrace to the badge pinned to that dirty shirt. Remove it and hand it over.”

“I’m sorry, Judge, but you don’t have that authority anymore. Mr. Spencer pays my wages and only he can fire me.”

“I may not but there are others who do.”

“Really, how come they never came with you?” Shafer grinned as his confidence soared.

Reynolds looked around the Jail and spotted Ben and Hoss standing at the doors to their cells, “Come in boys,” the judge yelled towards the door.

Immediately the small jailhouse began to fill with men of all ages. Ben smiled as he recognized Roy Coffee holding the door. He watched as the jail became crowded and still the townsmen kept coming. Most of them had known Ben and done business with him over the years and all had a look of outrage.

“I may not have the authority to make you take off that badge but the council does. Mayor Wilkes would you do the honours?”

“I’d love to,” Wilkes said as he stepped forward, removing a clean napkin from his shirt pocket as he did. He reached out and pulled sharply on the grimy badge Shafer wore. The badge came off and Shafer fell back in his chair.

“You can’t do this,” he said angrily.

“We already have,” Wilkes said as he passed the badge to a new man. “Get this cleaned up. Now that we have put this dirty little man out of a job we can find a real man to do it.”

“Well said, Mr. Mayor,” Reynolds told him never taking his eyes from Shafer. “Pass over the keys,” he ordered.

Shafer licked his lips and reached into his pocket, “I’m going to Mr. Spencer,” he said hoping the name would put fear back on the faces of the townspeople.

“Spencer and his men have left Carson City,” Wilkes told him.

“No,” Shafer said unbelievingly as he passed the keys to the judge.

Reynolds walked to the cells and opened the door for Ben and Hoss. Ben was immediately out and grabbed Shafer by the shirt, “Where is he holding my sons?” he asked angrily.

“You can’t do this to me,” Shafer cried as he tried to pull away from the vicelike grip.

“Where are my sons?” Ben asked again, this time pulling Shafer face next to his. Ben’s stomach churned at the stale smell of tobacco and whiskey but he didn’t release the unpleasant man.

“I… I don’t know.”

“If I find out you’re lying and something happens to my boys you won’t live long enough to stand trial,” Ben told him.

“Y… you hear that, Judge, he threatened m… me!”

“Sorry, I never heard a thing. Any of you fellas hear anything?” Reynolds asked. There was a chorus of, no, not me, never heard a thing from each of the men present.

Shafer knew he was in trouble, “I… I don’t know where they are. Mr. Stanton and his men have them but never told me where,” he said.

Ben released his grip and Shafer sank back in his chair, rubbing his neck where his collar had rubbed.

“Is there anyone who might know?” Ben asked.

“I… I don’t know,” Shafer said nervously.

“Tell me the…” Suddenly Ben heard the retort of a gun and felt Shafer’s body go slack in his arms. “Please tell me who else knows,” Ben pleaded as men ran from the jail in search of the shooter.

Shafer’s eyes took on a glazed look and he knew there was no hope. He looked into Ben Cartwright’s eyes and whispered, “L… Lila…” he said as his eyes closed in death.

“Lila Stanton,” Wilkes said softly.

“She’s the one Joe helped,” Hoss said to his father.

“Where can we find her?” Ben asked Reynolds and Wilkes.

“She used to work in the saloon but she left town last week,” Wilkes explained.

“Any idea where she might have gone?” Ben asked.

“None at all. She just left her house and belongings and never said a word,” Wilkes told them.

Roy Coffee came back into the office followed by a couple of the townspeople.

“Did you find anything, Roy?” Hoss asked.

“Nothing. It looks like he had a horse with him and just took off. A few of the men have gone looking for him,” he answered.

“How long ago did Spencer leave?” Ben asked no one in particular.

“Near as we can figure he left just after you two were thrown in here,” Wilkes explained.

“That gives him almost three hours. Did anyone see which way he went?” When no one answered Ben shook his head. “There’s got to be some way to find Spencer or Lila Stanton.”

“We’ll be able to track Spencer in the snow, Pa,” Hoss suggested.

“Let’s do it,” Ben said and hurried out the door. Large fluffy snowflakes fell to the ground as the men left the office. “Is anything going to go right for us?” he asked as he looked at the sky.

“I don’t think you’ll find anything in this weather,” Wilkes said as the wind rushed around the corners of the buildings. The snow that had threatened Carson City for nearly a week came down with a vengeance.

“Pa.”

“There’s nothing we can do, Hoss. Not until this storm ends,” Ben said.

“Have you got a place to stay yet, Ben?” Reynolds asked.

“We only got into town this afternoon. Haven’t had a chance to check in anywhere.”

“Why don’t you, Hoss, and Roy come stay the night at my place? I got plenty of room.”

“Thanks, Arthur. Hoss can you take the horses to the livery?”

“But, Pa.”

“Hoss, we’re all bone tired and I don’t think we’ll do Adam or Joe any good if we do something foolhardy. Please just put up the horses,” Ben told him tiredly.

“Yes, sir,” Hoss said, walking towards the horses.

“I’ll see you at Arthur’s house, Son,” Ben called above the wind.

*****

“When?”

“Now, Joe,” Adam told his brother and the two men moved as one. Adam dove for Tucker, who lay face down on the cot. He grabbed the all to familiar body and reached for the holstered gun. The two men rolled off the bed and spilled to the floor.

Joe hit Stanton with such force that the he was thrown from the chair and landed on the floor next to Wilson. Stanton’s gun flew from his holster and the three men grabbed for it.

Wilson had been sleeping on the floor and had removed his holster and placed it on the hanger by the door. He grappled with Joe and Stanton for the gun and soon three hands were wrapped around the barrel.

Roland Spencer stood outside the door listening to the commotion happening inside, “Damn fools,” he said to his two companions. He pulled out his own gun and smiled as the others did the same. Spencer shoved the door open and was not surprised to see the two Cartwrights beginning to get the upper hand on his own hired hands.

Adam had seen the two men on Joe and had decked his look-alike, the blow knocked Tucker down with such force that his head bounced resoundingly off the floor and he lost consciousness. Adam immediately went to the aid of his younger brother. He grabbed Wilson’s hand and pulled the man from on top of Joe.

Joe grinned at his brother as he pulled Wilson away. Adam easily got control of the gun and pointed it at Stanton’s head, “Don’t make me pull the trigger,” he said as the door was shoved open and a cold wind blew into the cabin. He barely had time to realize it was Roland Spencer when a gunshot rang out.

The bullet tore into the wall behind Joe’s back and nobody moved. Adam still held the gun to Stanton’s head as Spencer’s men followed him into the tiny cabin.

“Put the gun down, Cartwright, or your brother dies,” Spencer ordered.

“Don’t do it, Adam,” Joe called as he stood up.

“I think we have a standoff here,” Adam said, even though he knew Spencer didn’t value Stanton’s life.

“That’s where you’re wrong, Cartwright,” Spencer said as he shot Stanton, who dropped like a stone to the floor. “See what I mean?” Spencer laughed as he pointed the gun back at Joe. “Now put the gun down or your brother’s next,” he said cocking the trigger.

Adam let the gun drop from his fingers. It made a thudding sound as it hit the floor next to the dead man.

“No, Adam,” Joe said as he saw their only hope of escape fall from his brother’s hand.

“You should have listened to him, Cartwright,” Stanton said as he shot Joe in the right leg, just above the knee.

Joe screamed as he fell to the floor clutching his right leg.

“You lousy…” Adam began and dropped to the floor as a bullet tore into his right arm.

“Now maybe you two will shut up for a while,” Stanton said as he went to the table and sat down, never removing the gun from Adam.

“Joe crawled to his brother and the two Cartwrights sat holding their wounds while Stanton’s men hovered over them.

“What do ya want us to do with em?” Wilson asked.

“Get Stanton’s body outta here and wake Tucker,” Spencer said angrily.

Adam and Joe sat beside each other, each checking the seriousness of the others wound. Adam’s shoulder bled freely and Joe reached onto the cot and tore a piece out of the sheet. He pushed it under his brother’s shirt covering the wound as best he could.

The bullet just grazed me, Joe. Let me have a look at your leg,” he said and tore Joe’s pants down the seam. Adam could see where the bullet had entered just above the knee and had exited through the back. He felt around the wound until he was sure there was no major damage. The bullet had gone straight through, not touching the bone and Adam breathed a sigh of relief as he tore another piece from the sheet. “You just lay back and rest that leg, little brother,” he ordered.

Neither Cartwright realized they’d had an audience until Spencer’s voice interrupted them, “How touching. You both know it’s a waste of time. Surely you realize you’re dead men anyway.”

“You don’t know the Cartwrights very well,” Adam answered. “A Cartwright never gives up,” he said proudly as he finished wrapping Joe’s leg. He helped Joe to his feet and laid him back on the cot. “Stay there,” he ordered. For once Joe didn’t argue and lay back against the musty smelling pillow.

Spencer watched as his men removed Stanton’s body. He listened to Wilson trying to wake Tucker without success. Angry at Tucker for almost letting his revenge get away from him he grabbed the bucket of melted snow and poured it over the unconscious man.

Tucker sputtered, shook his head and wiped the water from his face, “What did ya do that for?” he asked, anger showing on his face as he grabbed for Roland Spencer.

“You stupid fool,” Spencer said as he pushed his gun into Tucker’s well-muscled stomach. “I came here expecting to find the Cartwrights under control and instead I find they almost have control.”

“Stanton musta fell asleep,” Tucker told him fearfully as he moved away from the gun. “Where is Stanton anyway?” he asked.

“Stanton’s dead.”

“No loss there,” Tucker said, sighing as the other man put his gun away. “What’re you gonna do about Lila?”

“Lila left town. I don’t know where she’s gone or if she’ll be back. Doesn’t matter anyway. I have to leave the area as soon as this storm let’s up.”

“Why?” Tucker asked.

“I have to. They know I had something to do with kidnapping those two,” he said indicating Adam and Joe.

“Maybe we should kill them and be done with it,” Tucker suggested as Spencer’s two men came back inside.

“We stick to the original agreement. You and Wilson stay here and do the job I’m paying you for,” Spencer said.

“What difference does it make whether we do it now or on Christmas Eve?” Tucker asked.

“My father died on Christmas Eve because of the Cartwrights. I want Adam Cartwright to watch his brother die on the anniversary of the day I watched my father die.”

Tucker saw the madness in Spencer’s eyes and knew better than to argue. “So I kill them on Christmas Eve and meet you where?” he asked nervously.

“If you want the rest of your money you’ll meet me in San Francisco in three weeks. Not before!”

Tucker needed the money Spencer had promised him for this job. He knew he had little choice; he’d do as the man wanted. He’d wait till Christmas Eve, kill the Cartwrights, collect his money, and never see Roland again.

*****

The storm ended the next afternoon. Ben, Hoss and Roy immediately went to see the new sheriff about getting some extra men to search for his missing sons. The job of sheriff had been temporarily given to a man named Frank Parsons. He’d lived in Carson City most of his life and knew a thing or two about the law.

Parsons helped the men of Virginia City gather ten volunteers to help with the search. They were to go out in groups of four and search all the cabins within a ten-mile ride of Carson City. Everyone was to report back to Carson City by nightfall. The newly fallen snow made it tough to search, but nobody turned away from the assigned search areas.

*****

Adam and Joe were given very little in the way of food and what they did get would normally have been fed to the dogs. They knew they had to eat what they were given if they were to have a chance of being rescued. The longer they remained alive the better their chances of being found.

Adam watched as his brother tossed in his sleep. Joe’s wound was making it impossible for him to stand and Adam knew he could not escape without his brother. He prayed Spencer would leave soon because the man was becoming unstable. He’d glare hatefully over at them and point his gun at them as if he were going to shoot. At one point he went as far as shooting the gun at the ceiling causing splinters to rain down on them.

“The storms over,” Spencer said from the door.

“Does that mean you’re leaving?” Tucker asked.

“In a hurry to get rid of me, Billy?” Spencer asked.

“No, sir,” Tucker said, the fear building at the change in Spencer.

“Doesn’t matter whether you want me to or not, does it? Just make sure you carry out my instructions.”

“I will, Mr. Spencer,” Tucker said.

An hour later Roland Spencer and his two men left Tucker and Wilson to carry out the death threat against the Cartwrights.

Adam sat next to Joe and made sure he kept his leg elevated.

“Adam, I’m sorry,” Joe said quietly.

“For what, Joe?”

“I should have known Spencer had hired Lila just like you said,” Joe told him.

“We’ve all been fooled by a pretty lady, Joe. I’m sorry for the things I said to you that day.”

“But you were right! Everything you said was true.”

“Not everything, Joe,” Adam told his brother. “I may have been angry but I should never have said you were good for nothing. You’ve proven over and over that you know what you’re doing when it comes to the Ponderosa and I’m proud to call you brother.”

“Thanks, Adam, that means a lot to me,” Joe said, his voice laced with pain and weariness.

“Get some rest, Joe,” Adam told him.

“Only if you will,” Joe said. Adam lay down on the floor next to the cot and closed his eyes, but didn’t sleep. He couldn’t take the chance Tucker would do something while they were both helpless. He knew Joe needed to rest so he closed his eyes and listened for his brothers breathing to relax in sleep. It wasn’t long before he heard it and he sat back up before he gave in to exhaustion as well.

*****

That night a solemn group of men made their way back to Carson City. There had been no sign of the missing men in the areas they’d searched. Each man vowed they’d meet Ben, Hoss, and Roy at dawn the next morning to start a new search area.

*****

The next five days went quickly and there was still no sign of the missing Cartwrights. It was Christmas Eve morning and Ben sat on his horse ready to start searching for his boys. The men from Carson City had given up, mostly because they wanted to spend Christmas with their families. Ben didn’t blame them; he wished he were home, with his boys, decorating their own Christmas tree. Over the years it had been a Cartwright tradition to gather round the tree and tell each other what they meant to each other. Last year he’d watched each of his sons shed tears when he told them they meant more to him than life itself. He’d meant every word and now he was willing to give up his life if it meant his boys would be returned safely.

Hoss mounted his horse and looked at his father. He knew his father hadn’t rested the night before. Not only because the little cots in the line shack were uncomfortable but for the same reason he hadn’t. It was Christmas Eve and his brothers were still missing. The search party was now down to the three of them. Roy Coffee had proven once again how he felt about the family by staying with them in what seemed to be a fruitless search. The dark lines under Bens eye told him just how worried his father was.

Roy knew things had gone from bad to worse. The longer it took them to find Adam and Joe the more the possibility arose that they were searching for their bodies. He knew that with most kidnappings, the quicker the victims were found the better the chance of finding them alive. Time was not a friend to them now as it seemed Adam and Joe were probably already dead.

*****

“Wake up, Joe,” Adam called to his brother. They lay side by side on the floor where Tucker had thrown them the night before after using ropes to tie their hands and legs. Joe’s leg wound had reopened with the rough treatment and Adam had listened to his low moans even in his sleep.

“Hmm…” Joe moaned.

“Come on, Joe, you gotta wake up,” Adam said his own body protesting the ropes and lack of rest.

“What’s wrong?” Joe asked tiredly.

“Time is running out, Joe,” Adam told him.

“What do you mean?”

“It’s Christmas Eve.”

Joe had lost track of time since he’d been shot and his eyes glazed with fear as he realized what Adam meant, “Tucker’s supposed to kill us tonight,” he said softly.

“We have to do something. Do you think you could walk on that leg?” Adam asked.

“I’d give it a good try, but you should go without me. Maybe you could bring back help.”

“Yeah, sure, little brother. I’m gonna leave you to these two,” Adam told him.

Joe knew Adam was being sarcastic but not in a rude way. He knew Adam would never leave him, the same way he would never leave Adam. “We’re in this together,” Joe said and started working on his ropes.

“Together,” Adam said and worked on his own ropes.

“What are you two doin?” Wilson asked from the table.

“I was just trying to work out a cramp in my leg,” Joe snapped.

“A cramp in your leg is the least of your worries, kid. That leg won’t bother you anymore after tonight,” Tucker said, and the two men laughed.

Adam and Joe just glared at them. Both knew these men would carry out their threats and there was little they could do about it if they couldn’t get the ropes loose.

Tucker stood from the table and walked over to his two captives. He held a plate of leftover, congealing eggs. As he bent to place them on the floor, blue eyes met brown eyes. “I don’t think I’ll bother wasting the time to remove your ropes,” Tucker said and turned his back to Adams angry eyes.

“You’ll pay for this,” Adam said softly.

Tucker heard the vehemence in Adam’s voice and hurried back to the table.

Wilson had overheard Adam’s words and didn’t miss the look of fear that came over Tucker’s face. “Hey, don’t let him worry ya. He’s all trussed up like todays turkey. Let’s just play some cards till its time to carry out Spencer’s orders,” he said as he placed a deck of cards on the table.

*****

As the day wore on the three riders began to get more and more dejected. The darkening sky gave proof that it would soon snow again adding more problems to the search. It was almost completely dark but they continued on, knowing time was running out.

They were cold and hungry but neither man wanted to stop. Something told them that they had to find Adam and Joe today or it would be to late.

Ben noticed that they’d unconsciously strayed towards Lake Tahoe and its majestic beauty. He knew there was a cabin within riding distance and he headed his horse in that direction.

Hoss saw his father change direction and swung Chubb towards him, “Hey, Pa, where are ya goin?”

“I think I know where they are,” he said and his eyes lit up.

“Where?” Hoss and Roy asked in unison.

“Roland Spencer’s father had a cabin just north of here. It was so long ago I’d forgotten about it. They have to be there,” Ben said wistfully. ‘Please, God, if I were to have just one wish on this special Eve it would be to have my sons back with me. I need my sons. They are what make life worth living. Adam was your first gift to me those many years ago and he’s grown into a fine man. Hoss was your second gift and I thought a man could never want anything else. Then you gave me the gift of Joseph. Each boy lost his mother at an early age and we had to go on for each other. If even one of my sons were taken from me I don’t know if I could go on. Please grant me this special wish,” Ben said as the clouds parted to reveal a lone falling star.

“Hey, Pa, did you see that. It’s a wishing star. I wish we could find Joe and Adam,” Hoss shouted in childlike abandon.

Roy smiled in spite of the cold and weariness he felt. This really was a special family. “That’s a special wishing star, Hoss, that’s a Christmas wishing star,” he said, remembering fondly the night his own mother had told him about the Christmas wishing star.

“Then God’s gonna let us have our wish, Pa,” Hoss said and his heart felt light for the first time since Joe and Adam had been kidnapped.

*****

“It’s time, Cartwright,” Tucker said as he reached down and pulled Joe to his feet. Joe struggled as best he could but was soon dragged to the door.

Adam tried to stand but found himself held down by Wilson’s booted foot and a gun placed at his head. “Don’t do it, Tucker!” he yelled.

“Say goodbye to your brother,” Tucker told Joe.

“A… Adam,” Joe said, his voice quivering in fear.

“I’ll give you whatever you want, Tucker. It’s Christmas Eve, you don’t have to kill him,” Adam tried to reason with the man, his own fear rising to the surface.

“Sorry but Spencer would find a way to get to us if we were to let you go. Let’s get this over with. Outside,” he told Joe.

“Hey, Tucker, I thought you were supposed to kill him in front of his brother,” Wilson reminded him.

“We may be stuck here for a while yet and I don’t want to look at bloodstains while we’re here. I’ll bring this one outside and then come back for his brother. Spencer never said I had to do it inside.”

“I guess your right,” Wilson told him grinning down at the pinned man.

“Come on, Kid, let’s get this over with,” Wilson said opening the door and shoving Joe through it.

“No! You can’t do this!” Adam screamed as the wind tore into the cabin with a vengeance. “Please, God, don’t let this happen,” he cried as the door banged shut and tears of anger and frustration streamed down his cheeks. He fought Wilson with all his strength. With a great heaving shove he threw the man to the floor and got to his knees. His bound legs and arms made it impossible to get all the way to his feet and he fell back as Wilson regained his feet and shoved him back down.

*****

Joe fell out side the door; he felt the cold crawl deeply into his body as he lay in the cold snow. He shivered from fear as much as from the bitter wind.

Tucker bent down and cut through the ropes, “Get up,” he ordered.

“Go to he…”

“I said get up,” Tucker said grabbing Joe by his bound arms. He pulled Joe off the stoop and made him stand in front of him.

Joe’s injured leg shook as it took the full weight of his body. He knew this was the end and he turned his face to the sky, “Please, God, keep Adam safe till Pa and Hoss find him,” he prayed.

“You’re brother will join you shortly. Now don’t stray to far. I’m just gonna get your brother,” Tucker grinned as he turned back to the cabin.

Joe used every ounce of his dwindling strength to launch himself at Tucker.

*****

Suddenly the dull sound of a gunshot reached his ears and Adam felt despair and anger overwhelm him. He knew there was nothing he could do now to save his little brother but at least he could do something to the man who’d killed him.

*****

Ben Hoss, and Roy were close enough to the cabin to see the door open and two men emerge, bathed in shadows. Ben recognized the form of his youngest son immediately. He hurried his horse towards the cabin and raised his gun just as the smaller form launched himself at the other man. Ben didn’t hesitate as he saw the light flicker off the gun in the other mans hand as he pointed it towards his son. He fired and watched the man drop to the snow covered ground.

*****

Joe watched the crimson stain spread on the pure white snow but didn’t understand what had happened. He looked up just in time to see his father jump down from his horse, “Pa,” he cried. “Help, Adam!”

Ben hurried to his son knowing that Hoss and Roy were already headed for the cabin.

*****

Adam didn’t care whether he lived or died as he once more launched an attack on Wilson. He caught the surprised man off guard and the two fell heavily. Wilson rolled away from Adam and raised his gun just as the door slammed open.

Hoss saw the gun in the man’s hand pointed at his brother. He saw the man’s finger twitch and shot his own gun before the man could deploy his bullet into his brother.

“Hoss,” Adam said in relief.

Hoss was shocked by the haggard look on his brother’s face as he hurried across the room. “Thank God, Adam,” he said.

“Thank God for what?” Adam said as tears streamed down his cheeks. “Letting Joe die.”

Hoss’s face frowned in confusion at Adam’s statement and he placed his hand on his brother’s shoulder, “Adam, Joe ain’t dead. He’s outside with Pa,” he explained.

“I’m right here, big brother,” Joe said as his father helped him into the cabin, closing the door behind him.

Adam waited for Hoss to finish untying the ropes and hurried to his brother. Joe was now seated on the cot where his father had placed him.

Roy Coffee checked the man on the floor and wasn’t surprised to find he was dead. Hoss’s shot had been accurate and the man had died instantly.

“Joe… how… I thought… Tucker shot. I though I’d… lost you,” Adam stammered.

“Pa shot Tucker before he could shoot me, Adam,” Joe said, his eyes sparkling with unshed tears. “They found us,” he said simply.

“They sure did, little brother,” Adam said his own eyes alight with relief as he wrapped his arms around his family. “How’d you find us?” he asked when they finally released one another.

“With Gods help,” Ben said and went on to explain. “We’d been riding all day and ended up just south of here at Lake Tahoe. I remembered this cabin once belonged to Roland Spencer Sr., and we decided to check it out. I can’t explain how we ended up at the lake except to say God must have had a hand in it. He brought us to you and now I have my three greatest gifts with me once again.”

“Joe, remember when we used to watch for wishing stars?” Hoss asked.

“Sure, Hoss,” Joe said as his father tended to his injured leg.

“I saw one tonight and made a wish on it. I guess you could say it was a Christmas wish on a Christmas star and it worked. Thank God it worked,” Hoss told them.

“Pa, can we go home?” Adam and Joe asked in unison.

“You sure you’re up to it?” Ben asked looking from one son to the other.

“I need to go home,” Joe said.

“I do too,” Adam said and couldn’t take his eyes from his brother. Both men knew how close they’d come to death on this Christmas Eve. They wanted to celebrate it at home with their family.

“Let me get the horses ready and we’ll leave immediately,” Ben said.

*****

Hop Sing sat on the couch gazing into the embers of the dying fire. It was nearly midnight and still no word from his beloved family. The tree Hoss and Ben had cut for the family had been erected in it’s usual spot by a few of the ranch hands, but Hop Sing had not put one decoration on it. Until his family was home he had no reason to celebrate. He wished with all his heart for the Cartwrights to come through the door and back into his life. He needed them as much as they needed him.

Slowly, feeling his age, he went to the fire and added a few pieces of wood. He glanced around the lonely house and felt a tear drop from his eye. A sound at the door made him jump to his feet. His eyes lit with happiness as the family he longed to see entered the house. Ben and Adam supported a limping little Joe between them. “You back. You come home. This best Christmas Hop Sing ever have,” he said as Ben and Adam helped Joe to the couch. Hop Sing looked around, “Where Hoss?” he asked worriedly.

“He and Roy are putting the horses up, Hop Sing,” Ben told the happy man. “Can you make some coffee?” Ben asked.

“Hop Sing make coffee and sandwiches,” he said as he smiled at his family.

“Pa, I think we’d better get Joe up to bed,” Adam suggested.

“I’m fine, Adam,” Joe said, wearily closing his eyes.

“Sure you are, little brother,” Adam laughed. “That leg of yours needs to be elevated.”

“I can do that down here,” Joe said. “Sides, what about your arm?”

“What about your arm, Adam?” Ben asked as Roy and Hoss hurried in, closing the door behind them

“Nothing wrong with my arm, Pa,” Adam said.

“Let me see, son,” Ben said and Adam could tell by the determined look on his father’s face there was no point in arguing. Ben took one look at his oldest son’s arm and had Hop Sing bring in warm water and clean towels. He quickly cleaned Adam’s shoulder and placed a clean bandage on it. When he was finished he looked at his eldest and youngest sons. “I think it’s time you were both in bed. I’ll send one of the men for Paul at first light,” Ben said.

“But, Pa,” Adam protested.

“But…” Joe began until their father lifted his hand in the signal that there would be no arguments. An hour later the Cartwright house was quiet. Adam and Joe were snuggled comfortably in their own beds, where they slept peacefully for the first time in over a week.

*****

Christmas morning dawned crisp and clear. The Cartwright family were busy trimming the tree as Hop Sing set the table for breakfast. Paul Martin came to the ranch early and after examining both Adam and Joe determined that they were going to be fine. Joe was to stay off his leg for another week, and despite his sputtering lay on the couch while the others trimmed the tree.

By mid-afternoon the family was ready to settle down and enjoy Christmas. Paul Martin and Roy Coffee had both gone back to town leaving the family in front of a roaring fire.

Adam passed Joe his gift bringing a happy smile to the tired face. Hoss, Ben, and Hop Sing each passed out their gifts and in the end Joe placed his gifts on the floor, a disappointed look on his face.

“Is something wrong, Joseph?” Ben asked as he sat beside his son.

“Not really, Pa, I just feel bad that I didn’t get anything for any of you.”

“Joseph, I think I can speak for everyone when I say that having you and your brother here is the greatest gift of all. Material things mean nothing compared to having all of you with me. Merry Christmas, boys. Merry Christmas, Hop Sing,” he said.

“Merry Christmas, Pa, Merry Christmas Hop Sing,” Adam, Hoss, and Joe said.

“Merry Christmas to my family,” Hop Sing said happily.

*****

Roland Spencer stayed away from San Francisco. He sent one of his men with the money for Billy Tucker. When the man returned he told him Tucker hadn’t showed up at the hotel. Spencer knew something had gone wrong and he angrily hit the wall with his fist. “Someday Adam and Joe Cartwright will pay for this!” he vowed.

*****END*****

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