The Best Days of our Lives (by Territell)

Synopsis:  This story is the follow-up to my story “Boy to Man to Boy”. Although it is not compulsory to read the first story, it is recommended.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  15,900


“You’re drunk,” snapped Adam, looking down at his youngest brother slouched back in the chair.

“I just had a couple of beers,” slurred a rather inebriated Joe.

Adam stood back and crossed his arms, raising one eyebrow in a way that had sent warning bells in Joe’s mind since he was a small child, but on this occasion he was not in a fit state to take note.

“OK Joe, it’s been a long day, I’m tired and my patience is at an end. On your feet and back to the hotel. NOW.”

Joe was in the middle of a losing hand at poker so he had no qualms about placing his cards face down on the table as he made an attempt to rise. Before he could get to his feet, one of the five other men round the table, pushed Joe roughly back down into his seat and said, “No one’s leaving this game. Now kid, you’re not running out on me, and you ain’t going anywhere until you pay up.”

Adam looked first at the man and then back at Joe, doing nothing to hide his contempt for his brother’s behavior, whereupon Joe slumped further into his chair and pulled his hat down over his face. With a resigned sigh, Adam took a deep breath, there just didn’t seem any point in getting in a fight over this, and so begrudgingly he reached into his jacket and removed his wallet. “How much?”

Seeing how quickly the older fellow was willing to pay up the card shark replied, “Well with that last game, uh, I make it $500.”

Hoss let out a low whistle and if looks could kill, Joe would be six feet under from the seething glare given to him by Adam.

Gritting his teeth together, Adam removed $500 from his wallet and paid the man at the table. “You, up now,” he growled, grabbing Joe by the arm and yanking him to his feet.

Joe only managed to take two steps forward when his knees started to buckle and his co-ordination went completely. As he fell to the ground Hoss grabbed him under the arms and with ease threw him over his shoulder and walked out of the saloon, his long strides quickly falling into step next to Adam.

They had not gone far before Adam gave vent to his anger, “So help me. Hoss, I’m going to blister his hide so bad he won’t sit for a week. $500! How could he bet $500? He’ll be working until he retires to pay me back. I now own him body and soul. Why can’t he do as he’s told just for once?”

“I’m still here; don’t talk about me like I ain’t there,” slurred Joe from his position on Hoss’s shoulder.

Hoss reached up and slapped Joe hard on his rump. “You best keep quiet, young’un, if you know what’s good for you.”

“Ow, that hurt,” yelped Joe, whereupon Hoss gave him another one for good measure.

Upon reaching the hotel Hoss easily ran up the stairs with his burden and upon entering the room he unceremoniously tossed Joe onto the bed. Joe made one attempt to rise before surrendering to the spinning room and falling back upon the pillows he immediately fell asleep.

Adam looked down at him, his anger still seething inside. “What is it with him, Hoss? Is it too much to ask? All he had to do was wait here for a couple of hours until the meeting was ended. We could have all gone out, had a meal and a drink as arranged. But not Joe, no, he has to go out and get drunk and lose $500 into the bargain. I’ve a good mind to put him on the first stage home and let Pa deal with him.”

Hoss let out a deep breath as he let Adam rant on. He couldn’t blame him, after all it had been a long cattle drive and they had spent their first night of freedom scouring the bars for Little Joe.

Adam’s ranting finally came to an end and looking at Hoss, he sighed, “I suppose we better get him into bed.” The big brother in him was taking over once more.

Hoss loosened Joe’s gun belt and pulled it out from under him. He then reached down and undid the buttons on Joe’s pants while Adam grabbed hold of his boots. With a couple of pulls, Adam had the boots off and Hoss swiftly followed by tugging Joe’s pants down over his hips. It only took another couple of minutes for them to have Joe stripped and into his nightshirt. Joe didn’t stir as his brothers lifted him and placed him under the covers.

Hoss couldn’t help smiling. “He still looks so young and kinda cute when he’s asleep, don’t he, Adam?”

Adam snorted but didn’t reply; Joe and kinda cute just didn’t go together for him at the moment. It was times like this he wished his Pa was around then he wouldn’t have to take responsibility for the troublesome youngster before him. “Well it’s late and I for one am tired. Let’s go to bed, Hoss; I’ll deal with him in the morning.”

As the brothers made to leave the room, a retching sound came from the bed and Hoss grabbed the basin from the table just in time to place it under Joe’s head. The results of too much alcohol were beginning to have an effect and a low groan emanated from Joe’s lips as a bout of sickness once more came over him.

“I guess one of us is going to have to stay with him and make sure he’s OK,” sighed Hoss.

A disgusted look came over Adam’s face as he screwed up his nose at the terrible smell coming from the bowl in Hoss’s hands. “Well Hoss, since you’re the one who thinks he’s ‘kinda cute’, I think you should be the one,” said Adam and with not a backward glance he swept out of the room.

*****

The following morning Adam and Hoss sat at the breakfast table enjoying a large plate of pancakes, eggs and bacon.

“Do you want me to get Little Joe, or do you plan to leave him in bed. He’ll not be fit for much today after all,” remarked Hoss.

“Leave him in bed? You must be joking; he would just love that. Oh no, little brother is getting up now and believe me, Hoss, he’ll wish he’d never been born before this day is out. He’ll certainly think twice before he sneaks off again and gets drunk. It’s time for the morning after the night before and I for one am going to enjoy it.”

Minutes later Adam and Hoss made there way into Joe’s room. Adam wrinkled his nose at the lingering smell and walking over to the dresser, he poured out a glass of water. Sauntering over to the bed, he pulled back the covers and took great delight in pouring the cold water over the still-sleeping Joe.

A spluttering Joe sat up immediately and proceeded to let out a low groan as the full effect of his hangover came over him. “O-o-oh Adam please, have mercy, my head’s killing me.”

“Well there’s a very good reason for that, Little Joe, but we won’t go into that just now. I’ll wait until you’re fully awake before we have that little discussion. Now you have 10 minutes to get up, washed and downstairs. And don’t dawdle; I’m in no mood to be kept waiting.”

Little Joe knew better than to rile Adam when he was in this mood, at times he could be worse than Pa and this was definitely one of them.

A very green Joe joined his brothers at the front of the hotel that morning. Adam was exasperated at the boy in front of him. His unruly curls didn’t look as if they had been brushed, his clothes were unkempt and he had dark circles under his eyes. Joe made to speak but was quickly silenced.

“I haven’t time for your excuses now, Joe, as I have a meeting at 9 am, but rest assured you and I will be having a little discussion before this day is out,” Adam threatened.

“Now look here Adam, I’m too big for any little discussions,” stuttered a worried Little Joe.

“I said later, Joe.” A malicious smile crossed Adam’s face. “A tanning wasn’t what I had in mind, but overstep the mark just once today and I might decide you aren’t too big after all. Is that clear?”

“Yes sir,” said Joe standing up straight with his hands behind him in the protective stance he had taken since a child. Joe knew from past experience it was best not to give Adam any reason to carry out his threat.

Promptly at 9 am, Adam presented himself at the office of Jonas Morgan, a very prominent businessman in San Francisco.

“Come on in, Adam,” said Jonas as he showed Adam into his office, “so nice to see you again after all this time. Is that Hoss with you? Good to see you, Hoss. My, you seem to get bigger every time we meet. And who is this? I don’t believe we have met young man,” he said, extending his right hand to Joe. “Well gentlemen, have a seat and let’s get down to business.”

Little Joe found himself almost nodding off as Jonas, Adam and Hoss droned on and on about mining rights and land investments. His stomach was still doing somersaults and at one point he found himself taking deep breaths in order to keep himself from retching. The voices had stopped and Joe opened his eyes to find the three men looking at him.

“Are you all right there, young fellow? You don’t look very well” asked a concerned Jonas.

“Oh he’ll be fine, Jonas,” said Adam sarcastically. “I think maybe he just needs some fresh air and a bite to eat. Perhaps we should adjourn for lunch and resume about 2pm.”

With that, the four men made their way to a nearby restaurant and ordered lunch. Joe hadn’t realized how hungry he was until that point and he began to perk up at the thought of food.

“Now gentlemen, I know it’s early but how about a brandy, and maybe a sarsaparilla for the boy here,” said Jonas slapping Joe on the back. Joe bristled at the ‘boy’ mention but one look from Adam stopped him from making a retort.

As lunch progressed, the conversation deviated from business and Jonas brought them up to date with local news in San Francisco. Jonas sat on the governing board for a number of the schools in the town and he was particularly concerned that one of them was having problems with the older children.

“I don’t know what to do about it. Some of the older boys are definitely involved with illegal practices but no one seems to know what. The other children are too frightened to tell on them and the poor teacher, well let’s just say she is out of her depth. What we need is to have someone on the inside, who could maybe get in with the troublemakers and find out what’s going on, before these boys get into something they can’t get out of. I have spoken to the parents of a number of the boys I think maybe involved, but without proof, their parents are unwilling to do anything.” Jonas shook his head in exasperation.

A thought struck Adam and he could hardly stop himself from chuckling as the idea formulated in his brain. Raising his eyebrows he glanced at Hoss then inclined his head towards Joe. Hoss realizing what Adam was up to began to smirk but quickly dropped his head in case Joe cottoned on to what they were up to.

“I think I might have the answer to your problem,” said Adam. “Why doesn’t Joe here enroll in the school for a few weeks and see if he can find out what the children are up to?”

The mouthful of sarsaparilla that Joe had just taken went down the wrong way and he almost choked. Hoss thumped his back making him splutter even more and it was several minutes before Joe had breath enough to speak.

“You’ve got to be joking, Adam,” he squeaked. “There’s no way, and I mean NO WAY, that I am going back to school.”

Jonas butted in. “Well thanks for the offer, Adam, but I wouldn’t want the boy involved in this. Anyway, won’t you be going back to Virginia City shortly? Surely Joe needs to get back to his own school.”

This was too much for Joe; his voice rose another octave as he responded, “School! Me go back to school? Mr. Morgan, I’m 18; I DON’T go to school.”

“You’re 17, Joe, not 18,” corrected Adam.

“I’ll be 18 in less than two months.”

“Ok, ok, so you’re nearly 18, but at the moment you’re 17. And before you make a definite decision on this, Little Joe, perhaps you might like to think on that $500 dollars you owe me. Seems like a very quick way to earn $500 dollars if you ask me. But if you’re really sure you’re don’t want to do this, maybe we should return to the Ponderosa and discuss your behavior with Pa. On the other hand, Pa said we could have an extended holiday when all the business was finished and if you play the game, he really doesn’t have to know anything about your little escapade last night.”

Joe slumped back in his seat; he knew he was beaten. Adam smiled triumphant; things were working out better than he could have imagined. Joe would be safe in school helping out his friend Jonas and that would leave him and Hoss time to enjoy the delights of what San Francisco had to offer without worrying about his pesky little brother all the time.

As they were leaving the restaurant, Joe’s eyes fell on a couple of men at a table near the door. One of the men had straggly long hair and a full beard that took up half his face. Joe didn’t think he recognized the man but there was something about him that made Joe feel uneasy; he couldn’t put his finger on it but he knew this man was trouble and a cold shiver went down his spine giving him the feeling that someone had just walked over his grave.

*****

That very same evening, Jonas introduced Adam, Hoss and Joe to Mr. Cuthbertson, who was one of the governors for the school in question. It was decided that no one but Jonas Morgan would be aware of Joe’s true reason for being at the school, as Jonas was of the opinion that Mr. Cuthbertson’s own son Carl maybe one of the ringleaders involved.

It was arranged that Joe would start school the following Monday. Mr. Cuthbertson addressed himself to Adam, completely ignoring Joe. “Well how old is the boy and what level is he up to?”

Before Joe could respond, Adam put a warning hand on his shoulder and, squeezing it slightly, he said, “He’s 14, going on 15, and from what his own teacher tells me. he’s quite a bright boy. He can be a bit of a dreamer and a little disruptive so he needs a firm hand.” Little Joe’s face burned bright red with embarrassment and indignation.

“Hmm,” said Mr. Cuthbertson “he’s a big lad for his age, but big or not I’ll have no nonsense or he’ll feel the end of my strap.”

Adam and Hoss tried hard to contain their amusement. To have Joe described as ‘big for his age’ was a first, but somehow they didn’t think Joe was appreciating the irony of it on this occasion.

*****

Joe’s first few days at school were traumatic to say the least. He was miserable; he found that after working on the ranch with grown men for almost two years he no longer could relate to the children. Joe found their childish banter irritating and the 13 and 14 year old girls who had immediately started fawning over him were almost too much to bear. The only saving grace was the teacher. Miss Green was about 22 years old and extremely pretty and Joe, like all the other boys in the class, was immediately smitten.

It didn’t take Joe long to suss out which of the boys were causing problems. Carl was definitely the ringleader but there was at least another 5 or 6 boys following his lead. At first they wanted nothing to do with Joe and spent their days trying to rile him; which under normal circumstances wouldn’t be hard for Joe but since he was in fact dealing with ‘children’, he tried his utmost to keep his temper.

It was the third day and Joe was bored silly; he had never enjoyed school when he was there and was certainly not enjoying it now. When Miss Green had to reprimand him for the fourth time that day about his daydreaming, she asked him to stay and do lines after school. At 3 pm that day, as Joe sat at his desk writing ‘I must not daydream in class’ over and over again, he thought things couldn’t get any worse. As soon as the last word was written he made his way to the teacher’s desk and handed the finished work over to Miss Green. As she looked up, her eyes locked with Joe’s and for some inexplicable reason, she found she just couldn’t look away; they were both mesmerized. Time stood still and before either of them had time to collect their thoughts, their heads came together and they kissed. The kiss was chaste at first but as the heat began to smolder through them, Joe found his arms around her and his kisses became more passionate.

The situation did not have time to progress when, without warning, Joe felt himself lifted off his feet, yanked backwards and thrown to the floor. Mr. Cuthbertson stood over him, face as red as beetroot, and in an absolute fury. Between gritted teeth he shouted, “Boy, I ought to thrash the living daylights out of you; now get outside and wait for me.”

Mr. Cuthbertson then turned on a now weeping Miss Green and said, “As for you, young lady, I suggest you collect your things and leave. The school board will not tolerate this type of behavior.” With that he turned and walked out of the schoolroom, slamming the door behind him.

Miss Green was appalled at her own behavior; after all Joe was not quite 15, in fact a child. How could she have allowed this to happen; she was his teacher after all. She tried to analyze her emotions but when she thought about it, she told herself his kisses had been anything but childlike; he was not naive in that department, of that she was very sure.

Little Joe stood outside trying to collect his thoughts. What happened in there? He certainly never meant to end up in a clinch with the schoolmarm. Oh Lord, Adam was going to be so mad.

As that thought was just passing through his head, Joe jumped a mile as his arm was grabbed in a vice like grip, while the person’s other hand landed heavily on his rear end.

“Now young man, I suggest you come along with me and we’ll have a word with your older brother about your disgraceful behavior.”

Thirty minutes later, a shamefaced Joe sat on the settee in the hotel room waiting for Adam to return from his discussion with Mr. Cuthbertson. Hoss was trying to make light of the situation but without much success. “How do you do it, boy? I’ve never known a kid to get in as many scrapes as you.”

Just then the door opened and Adam returned. “Well Joe, are you going to explain to me what happened? From what Mr. Cuthbertson is saying, you have forced yourself on a poor defenseless school teacher, who being a lady was unable to protect herself.”

Joe’s voice came out as a high-pitched squeal, “Forced? I never forced myself on anyone. You’ve got to believe me, Adam, it just happened. One minute I was standing at her desk and the next minute we were kissing. It wasn’t meant to happen; I never wanted it to happen. But I just looked in her eyes and, well, we just couldn’t help it.”

Adam looked at his brother’s stricken face and he knew Joe was telling the truth. What was it with this kid? Women of all ages just couldn’t resist him. His charm was legendary in Virginia City; he had been charming women from the moment he could walk, if not before, so why should the school ma’am be any different. “Ok Little Joe, I believe you.”

“What’s going to happen to Miss Green? I feel really bad about getting her into trouble as well?”

“Well Mr. Cuthbertson was all for sacking her, but I think I’ve persuaded him to transfer her to looking after the smaller children; I think she’ll be safer there. In the meantime, one of the governors on the board will be drafted in to look after the older kids. Got to hand it to you, little brother; you’ve certainly made an impression in the three days you’ve been there. Also I had to promise Mr. Cuthbertson that I would give you a thorough thrashing for your part in all this.”

Joe’s eyes almost popped out of his head. “Adam, you wouldn’t.”

Adam had to laugh. “No Joe, I wouldn’t, but just be sure to groan a little when you sit down tomorrow. I’m sure you won’t have difficulty making it look convincing; after all, you’ve had plenty practice.”

*****

The following day at school Joe found himself the centre of attention. Carl had heard his parents discussing what had happened at the school, and in the eyes of Carl and his cronies, Joe had suddenly become a bit of a hero and a real ladies man.

“Got to hand it to you, kid,” smirked Carl, “you certainly had me fooled. Didn’t think you had it in you. Well, come on what was she like?”

Joe wanted to punch his lights out, but seeing this as an opportunity to become one of the gang he shrugged his shoulders and said, “She was real nice, you know what I mean,” and with that he winked at the boys around him. He felt a read cad and hoped that Miss Green never became aware of this conversation.

The one consolation in all of this was the reaction of the girls in class. They were so shocked at his behavior that they had decided to give him the cold shoulder and wanted nothing more to do with him. Little Joe sent a prayer to heaven for small mercies; the unwanted attentions of these 14 year olds had been the thing that bugged him the most.

That night Carl and his buddies invited Joe to join them after school. It was on that first night that Joe began to get a glimpse of what was going on. Carl and the others had an awful lot of money for schoolboys, which was unexplainable. They quizzed him about the money his brothers had and where they kept their valuables. Joe would not divulge anything to them but he was curious about their interest. Carl laughed and said all would be revealed when, and if, they thought they could trust him.

One of the bigger boys, Ged, did not like Joe tagging along with them and he was determined to goad Joe into a fight. Joe would not be drawn by the boy’s juvenile attempts to make him lose his temper and in the end it was Ged that snapped and finally lunged at Joe in fury. The other boy was considerably bigger than him but Joe’s extra couple of years and the muscles he had built working on the ranch, together with the coaching he had received from Adam and Hoss, made the boy no match for him. Joe toyed with him, quickly sidestepping his clumsy attempts to land a punch on his body. As the other boys laughed, Ged lost control completely and he drew a knife on Joe.

“I’m gonna get you, Cartwright,” he said. “When I’m finished with you, that pretty face of yours is gonna scare all the girls away.”

Joe quickly removed his jacket and wrapped it round his left arm. The other boys formed a circle around them enjoying the spectacle, jeering and cheering them on. As Ged struck out, Joe tried to deflect the knife but only succeeded in receiving a slash to his right arm. The blood seeped through his shirt but Joe didn’t have time to think about it before Ged lunged at him again. This time the knife cut harmlessly into Joe’s jacket, but Joe decided he would have to do something quickly before things got completely out of hand. When Ged attacked him for the third time, Joe ducked down causing Ged to fall forward hitting mid air. Joe then jabbed out with his right fist hitting Ged hard in the stomach; this was followed by a punch with his left hand to Ged’s chin. Seconds later, Ged was laid out cold and the other boys were clapping Joe on the back in admiration.

After that, Carl opened up a little more to Joe about what was going on. Joe gleaned that Carl and the others were supplying a ‘friend’ with information about the people in the town. Most of the boys in the gang had influential parents that played a prominent part in San Francisco’s business. The boys made a point of finding out what business deals were being transacted and where money and valuables were being kept. This information was then passed to the ‘friend’. The friend and his men were then responsible for most of the crime that was happening within the city, but the boys themselves were not implicated. They were given a kick back for their trouble and so as Carl put it “everyone’s happy”.

Carl then explained how his own father was head of one of the banks in San Francisco and that there was going to be a small fortune arriving there in a couple of days time.

“Can you imagine it, Joe? All I have to do is find out how and when the money is arriving and pass on the information. I just leave the rest up to them, but my cut will make me a rich man. I’m going to leave this place and head out to Mexico; a couple of the guys are coming with me. Play your cards right and you can join us. We’ll have the time of our lives.”

Joe just nodded in return, a sick feeling settled in the pit of his stomach. How could they contemplate doing this to their own families? It wasn’t right and Joe was determined they would be stopped.

That night Joe tried hard to disguise from Adam and Hoss his injury, he felt as if he was finally getting somewhere and the last thing he wanted was for his brothers to start worrying. As soon as he entered their hotel suite he made his way to his room and changed his clothes. The blood had finally clotted and his arm was no longer bleeding but Joe was worried that it maybe needed a couple of stitches. He took one of his bandanas and wrapped it round the wound as best he could with one hand, before joining his brothers. It was almost bedtime and Joe thought he had got away with it. As he made to retire, Hoss was walking across the room and slapping Joe on the right arm said, “Goodnight, little brother.” Joe yelped out in pain and Adam quickly rushed to his side.

“What’s wrong Joe?”

“Nothing. I’m fine.”

This was Joe’s standard answer to the family when they enquired about his health, so Adam ignored him. Joe made to leave the room.

“Hold it right there, little brother,” said Hoss. “Now do you want to take your shirt off by yourself, or do you want me to do it for you?”

Joe knew when he was beat and with a resigned sigh he began to undo the buttons on his shirt. Hoss helped his out of it and then removed the bandana from his arm. Adam inspected the wound and decided that he would be able to tend to it without the need for a doctor. Joe winced when Adam cleaned and dressed his arm but it wasn’t until Joe was doctored and in his nightshirt sitting in bed that Adam asked for an explanation. Joe relayed the events of the evening and as he suspected Adam over reacted.

“That’s it, Joe. This is getting out of hand. I think maybe I made a mistake getting you involved in all this. Tomorrow we tell Jonas what is going on and from then you can quit school and leave him to sort it out.”

“Now hang on a second, Adam; you got me involved in all of this and I want to follow it through. Carl trusts me now and if I don’t continue to be one of them, we’ll never know who this other person is. At the end of the day, Carl and the others are kids but this other person needs to be stopped.”

Adam stood with his hands on his hips and with an edge to his voice said, “This is not open for debate, Joe; from tomorrow, this is not your affair.”

Joe couldn’t sleep that night. He was angry with Adam for putting him in this situation and then treating him like a kid when the going got rough. In the early hours Joe still couldn’t sleep and he decided he needed something or someone to help him unwind and so he quickly dressed and sneaking out of the hotel made his way to one of the many saloons in the area.

Less than an hour later, Joe was beginning to relax; he had had several beers and was now sitting with a pretty saloon girl in his lap. Julie, as he had found out she was called, whispered something in his ear about going upstairs and Joe smiled in acknowledgement. This was more like it. Maybe Adam was right; he should just quit this school business. Then he would have more time to enjoy the delights of the city.

Julie kissed Joe passionately and then standing she took hold of his hand and led him towards the stairs. Joe went willingly a knowing smile on his face but just as he placed his foot on the first stair he felt a strong hand on his collar.

“Where do you think you’re going, little brother?” said Hoss. Joe closed his eyes in frustration. Why couldn’t they have arrived five minutes later, by then he would have been safely upstairs and they would have passed on to the next saloon.

Julie looked angrily at Hoss. “Hey what’s going on, Mister?” She could see her prospective customer slipping away and it wasn’t just the money; he was so cute that she had been looking forward to their encounter.

Adam stepped forward and tipping his hat to Julie he said, “This here’s my little brother, ma’am, and he’s only 14.”

Julie jumped away from Joe as if she’d been scalded. “14!” she screeched. “Why you little varmint, you ought to be horsewhipped” and with that she slapped Joe hard across the face. Everyone was looking at them and Joe’s other cheek turned as red as the one that had been slapped.

When they arrived back at the hotel room, Joe exploded. “How dare you embarrass me like that? I’ve had it with you two; I can’t believe you told that girl I was 14.”

“Now hang on a second, Joe, what were you doing sneaking out like that and what do you think you were doing with that girl?” said Hoss.

“What do you think I was doing Hoss?” replied Joe in a voice that sounded anything but sorry.

“You don’t really mean to tell me that you were going to, well, you know…” floundered Hoss.

Joe threw his arms in the air in exasperation and with an exaggerated flounce went to his room, slamming the door behind him.

Hoss turned back to Adam, “I always thought that Little Joe was, well you know, innocent like. I never imagined for one minute…well, he’s just a kid.”

Adam stroked his chin and smiled, “I guess our little brother is a lot more grown up than we imagined Hoss. Yep, he’s just full of surprises.”

*****

The following morning Joe left for school as usual, but Adam was still sticking to his guns and insisting that Joe make it his last day.

Carl met him at the school gates, “Listen Cartwright, you have to do something for me. My Pa intends to come into school today so I can’t slip out. But you know that guy I was telling you about? Well, he is expecting me to meet him at the place we were yesterday. I have this note for him. It gives him the information he needs about the money coming into town. Now if you were to go missing for the day, no one would bother, so do you think you could meet him for me?”

Little Joe was excited at the prospect. Adam said to make this his last day. Well, if he could find out who Carl’s contact was, that would certainly help tie up a few loose ends and hopefully get the kids back in line. “Sure Carl, give me the note, I’ll meet him.”

Carl handed the note to Joe and went into school.

Joe rode out to the place they had been the day before and dismounting from Cochise he sat down under a tree and prepared to wait. Less than 5 minutes later, a man Joe had never seen before rode up and approached him. The man came over to Joe and indicated for him to stand up. He then patted down Joe’s body looking for any weapons. ‘OK kid you’re clean. You can get up on your horse.’

Joe began to feel uneasy; as he had been attending school, it was not possible to wear his gun, but now he felt exposed and vulnerable He didn’t know anything about this man and once again he had gone off half-cocked without giving any thought to the consequences.

“The boss is sure looking forward to meeting you,” cackled the man as he led Joe away.

Joe was puzzled. Why would the boss be interested in Joe Cartwright? Once again Joe admonished himself for his foolishness. How did he get himself into these messes? Adam was going to kill him this time that was for sure.

Joe tried to take in as much about the landscape as possible as he went along, he wanted to be able to lead Adam and Hoss back there if necessary and the terrain he was going over was unfamiliar territory to him. It was just over 30 minutes later when the man indicated for Joe to go ahead of him into a small ravine before them.

There was a makeshift camp set out with about seven or eight men sat round talking. As Joe approached he was surprised to see the bearded man from the restaurant amongst them. Joe’s early instinct about the man resurfaced and he began to feel very uncomfortable; he looked around him for a means of escape and saw none. As Joe tried to collect his thoughts and quell the panic that was threatening to rise in him, the man rose and turned to face him.

“Well, well, if it isn’t Little Joe Cartwright; I could not believe my good fortune when Carl said you had joined him in school.”

Joe looked hard at him but still felt no real recognition; he delved deep inside himself to try and find what it was about this man that made him seem so familiar? “Do I know you mister?”

At this the man let out a cruel laugh. “Oh you know me all right, Little Joe; we go back a long way.”

Joe still didn’t know the face of the man in front of him but he did remember the laugh and a cold shiver went down his spine. “Frank Carter” he whispered almost too afraid to speak.

“Yes Joe, Frank Carter. Who would ever have thought we would meet again in San Francisco, and to think I didn’t even have to seek you out. You came to me.”

Joe had no time to respond before he was pulled roughly from his horse and flung to the ground. He tried not to show his fear but memories of his torment at the hands of Frank Carter came back to him and he felt himself tremble involuntary. “What are you going to do with me?”

“Well believe it or not Little Joe, you are not the reason I’m here. I’m here first and foremost for the money, but I guess you’ve gathered that already. And you, well you are just the icing on the cake. You have no idea how much I have dreamt of meeting you again. You and that sanctimonious brother of yours. Yes, I am looking forward to meeting him as well.”

Joe had risen to his feet and watched with trepidation as Frank made his way towards him. Standing just feet away, Frank looked him up and down. “My, my you’ve certainly grown some since we last met; you’re not so scrawny. Even got a few muscles I see.” Frank stepped forward and made a show of pressing on Joe’s biceps. Joe tried to shrug him off but Frank just laughed. “Still got that spunk about you, Kid, but I knocked it out of you last time and I’ll do the same again. And oh boy, I’m gonna enjoy it even more this time.”

Joe looked him straight in the eye and tried not to flinch. “If I remember rightly you got your comeuppance as well, Frank. It wasn’t me they carried off to jail with a bullet hole in him.”

Joe didn’t finish speaking before Frank backhanded him hard across the face. He reeled backwards and only just prevented himself from falling over.

“Like I said, kid, I’m really gonna enjoy bringing you in line once more. Tie him up boys, good and tight.”

Two men manhandled Joe over to a tree, where they tied his hands behind his back and his legs together. This definitely gave Joe a felling of dejavu

Once seated, Joe took stock of his surroundings. They were not far from the river and Joe could make out a small bridge only slightly visible through the trees. As Joe mentally noted all these landmarks he smiled ruefully to himself; would all of his efforts help him in making an escape? He didn’t know, but thinking about it took his mind off what might be going to happen to him in the hours ahead. Joe tried not to think about the last time he was in the hands of Frank Carter. Frank was right; he had broken Joe’s spirit. Joe had started off being very cocky and brave but over the days he was held captive, the beatings and abuse that Frank and his men had dealt out to Joe had finally broken him and he had given in to despair. “Well Joe,” he said to himself, “just remember you were a kid then. You were only 16, but you’re a man now.” Joe swallowed hard; he didn’t feel like a man at this moment in time, he felt very much like a kid, the kid of two years ago.

Joe thought back to how Frank had humiliated him by giving him a thrashing with his belt until Joe had screamed out for mercy. Joe’s rock during that period had been Ron Shepherd, Ron had intervened on more than one occasion to prevent Joe from suffering even more, but he wasn’t there now and looking at the men that were with Frank this time, Joe would not be able to count on any help from them of that he was very sure.

For the next couple of hours Joe was left alone as Frank and the others were occupied with the arrangements on how they were going to intercept the money before it reached San Francisco. From the information that Carl had sent to them, they were able to work out which route the wagon carrying the cash would be taking, roughly what time and how many men would be guarding it.

“It’s a piece of cake,” said Frank, “this is going to be like taking candy from a baby. Very soon now we are going to be rich men and there’s going to be no one around to stop us.”

“What about the kid, what you got planned for him?”

Frank’s attention was drawn back to Joe and he smiled secretly. “Oh, don’t worry; I have big plans for Little Joe.”

“You planning on taking him with us?”

Frank laughed. “No way, but I will tell you this, he’ll wish we had when he finds out what I’ve got in mind for him.”

Joe once again tried not to show fear when he looked Frank straight in the eye. He knew what Frank was capable of and he really didn’t want to be on the receiving end of it.

*****

Back in town Adam and Hoss had spent a very pleasant day visiting a few acquaintances and were now relaxing in their hotel suite waiting for Joe to return from school. When it got to 6 pm and Little Joe failed to materialize, Adam became impatient.

“I’ve had it with him this time, Hoss. I told him that this was to be his last day at school. God, when you think about it I’m letting him off lightly considering he owes me $500. But no, Little Joe has filled his head with that many dime novels he now thinks he is some kind of detective. Well, if he has disobeyed me again and has gone off with those boys, I swear it, Hoss, 17 or not he will feel my belt before this day is out.”

Hoss knew that Adam was just sounding off and that Joe’s hide was safe, but just the same he wished the youngest member of the family would hurry up and get back before Adam exploded or worse still decided to go and look for him.

Time passed slowly and by 8pm, Adam’s temper had cooled and was replaced by a terrible feeling of foreboding. Joe could be irresponsible but Adam was sure that this was not the case on this occasion. He just hoped that his little brother had not become involved once again in something that he couldn’t get out of.

It wasn’t long before Adam and Hoss made their way to the Cuthbertson house with the sole purpose of finding news of their brother. Hoss tried to be optimistic and came up with various scenarios for Little Joe’s absence, but when he received no response from Adam, he too dissolved into silence.

Mr. Cuthbertson opened the door and was genuinely surprised to find the Cartwright’s standing on his doorstep. He invited them into his home and then summoned Carl into the front room to join them.

When questioned, Carl was quick to answer. “I’m sorry, Mr. Cartwright, but Joe didn’t come to school today.”

Adam could see the mocking insolence on the boy’s face but there was nothing he could do. He was quite sure that Carl knew more than he was letting on, but when he tried to put pressure on the boy his father intervened on his behalf.

“Carl has given you his answer, Mr. Cartwright. I suggest you try one of the many saloons around town; from what I gather your brother has been known to frequent such places. Good night, Gentlemen.”

Hoss and Adam had no choice but to leave. Their next port of call was the home of Jonas Morgan. Jonas’s delight at seeing the brothers quickly turned to one of concern for Little Joe. “I’m sorry Adam, I should never have got you or your brother involved in any of this. From what you have told me, there is something far more serious going on with the boys than some childish pranks. I will never forgive myself if Little Joe has come to any harm.”

Adam and Hoss returned to their hotel briefly on the off chance that Joe had turned up and then set about scouring the saloons as they had done on their first night. Two hours later and Hoss was becoming despondent. “What we gonna do Adam? You don’t think for one minute we gonna find Joe in one of these saloons do ya?”

Adam stopped in his tracks and looked at Hoss. “No Hoss. I don’t think we’re going to find Joe, but I don’t know what else to do. This is all my fault, Hoss. I just can’t bear to think what Pa is going to say. Why did I ever suggest that Joe go to that school? How could I have been so stupid?

“Come on Adam, we don’t know what’s happened to Joe. Let’s not go jumping to the wrong conclusion.” Hoss had no conviction in what he was saying but he could not voice his fears, that would be tempting fate, and Hoss tried never to do that.

By midnight the boys decided to call it a day and reluctantly headed back to the hotel. Neither of them slept much that night, each one trying not to imagine what could have happened to their little brother.

*****

Back at the camp, Little Joe had spent a very uncomfortable day. Frank had insisted on leaving him trussed up like a chicken on the hard ground and he was determined that Joe would be shown no consideration whatsoever.

On Joe’s previous encounter with Frank Carter, he had being intimidated into calling Frank ‘Sir’ and saying ‘please’ before he was given any allowances. Frank smiled as he thought about how much he had enjoyed breaking the boy’s spirit and how he was going to do the same thing again.

Joe had been tied for almost six hours before he was able to attract the attention of one of the men and make him aware of his pressing need. Upon hearing Joe’s request, Frank sauntered over to his side and said, “Remember your manners, boy; there’s a right way and a wrong way to ask for something. Now what’s it gonna be?”

Before Joe could stop himself his mouth was in gear and he retorted, “I’m not a kid anymore, Frank; I’m not frightened of your threats.”

Joe lived to regret those words. Frank didn’t argue with Joe or even put him under any pressure he just turned round and walked away saying, “Suit yourself, kid; it’s you that will have to sit in soiled pants not me.”

Two hours later Joe was no longer able to hold out and he had no alternative but to plead with Frank to be allowed to relieve himself. All to no avail. The inevitable happened and Joe could hardly hide his shame and embarrassment as the men in the camp witnessed the ultimate indignity imposed upon him.

Joe lay head down, trying desperately to hold back the tears that threatened to fall.

“Still the same sniveling little boy, aren’t we, Joe. Well let that be a lesson to you; don’t mess with me, kid, ’cause you can’t win.”

As Joe laid there in his wet pants, the men’s laughter rang in his ears. How much worse could things get? Little did Joe know but his nightmare was just beginning.

*****

After a restless night Adam and Hoss were joined by Jonas and the sheriff as they set out to try and find any trace of Joe. Knowing where to start was the problem; they were in a strange territory with no leads to go on. They spoke to the school children and teachers but no one appeared to have seen Joe the previous morning. Hoss prided himself on his tracking abilities but he just didn’t know where to start. The morning finished as it started and both brothers came to a decision; their father must be informed of Little Joe’s disappearance.

Later that day back at the Ponderosa, Ben was surprised when a messenger arrived at the ranch with a telegram. From past experience Ben’s heartbeat quickened as he opened the envelope; somehow he knew it was not going to be good news. With a trembling hand Ben scanned the page.

‘COME AT ONCE. JOE MISSING. ADAM’

No more words were needed; Ben packed a bag with essentials and saddled his horse to ride into town. He would catch the stagecoach the following morning. There was no time to dwell on what might have happened to his youngest son, the long coach journey to San Francisco would be time enough for that.

*****

Joe had spent a cold night as his wet clothes dried on him. By morning his limbs were stiff and aching and once again his needs were pressing. This time Joe decided to play the game the way that Frank decreed and he asked, “Please sir may I be released to relieve myself.” This was just what Frank wanted, reducing one of the Cartwright’s down to size and making him beg was all part of Frank’s plan for revenge.

Joe was not beaten that easily and by evening his fighting spirit was beginning to return. He admonished himself for giving in so easily; so he had wet his pants, big deal, what did it matter in the scheme of things? So he had to swallow his pride and ask Frank for small favors. Don’t allow him win, thought Joe, Adam and Hoss would never give in so easily. Joe began to build himself up and try and plan a means of escape. He had no doubt that his brothers would be looking for him and he was confident that Frank would not leave without the money, so there was still a chance he would be rescued. Joe had to hang on to these thoughts; he could not let Frank get the better of him. After all he was a Cartwright, his Pa and brothers had taught him better than that.

*****

By evening the men were becoming bored. They had rehearsed their plan over and over again as to how they would apprehend the wagon carrying the cash. Each of them had his part to play and Frank was anxious that nothing would go wrong, there was too much at stake. It wasn’t long before the men’s attention was drawn to Joe; maybe there was fun to be had after all.

Frank sat smiling as the men released Joe’s bound arms and legs. Joe did not know what their motives were; he just knew it would not be good for him. But nevertheless, he took the opportunity to straighten his aching limbs and try to get the blood flowing through his veins once more.

“I have heard you think you’re a pretty tough kid,” said the first one and Joe knew from that initial remark that he was in trouble.

“OK kid, I’ll take you first” said the wiry looking man and the others were quick to place their bets on the outcome and circulated Joe like a pack of wolves. Joe hardly had time to take stock before the man lunged at him knocking him to the ground. Joe was winded but his reflexes were good and he quickly jumped to his feet. The man snarled as he advanced on Joe a second time and struck out with his right fist. Joe moved to the side and the man hit mid air, falling forward as he did so. As the man tried to regain his balance Joe ducked down and hit him hard in the midriff causing him to double over. As the man bent forward Joe let go with his left fist and hit the man smack in the chin. Joe couldn’t believe his luck the guy went down hard before he had even made contact with Joe. The men standing around laughed out loud and whooped mockingly at the wiry man’s feeble attempts to better the kid. Regaining his feet and red in the face with the exertion the man was about to strike out at Joe once more when one of the other men grabbed him and said ‘Hold it, Jim; you’ve had your turn now it’s mine.”

While Joe was trying to quickly collect his thoughts, the man’s fist jabbed forward and landed a heavy blow to Joe’s stomach before he had time to react. Joe’s breath exhaled from him and he sank to his knees. The next blow was to his face and even though Joe was able to lean backwards slightly to prevent the full impact, his nose still exploded sending blood splattering in all directions.

As the man looked round at his comrades to gloat over his prowess, Joe rolled away from him and sprang to his feet once again. Blood was streaming from his nose and mouth but he wasn’t beaten yet. Taking a running jump, Joe leaped into the air and with both feet off the ground he landed squarely into the man’s chest. The guy went down hard and Joe was quick to take advantage. He straddled the prone figure and let go with his fists one after the other. Joe was beyond control and it was only when he felt someone yank him from behind and hurl him off the prostrate figure below him that he realized that the other man was unconscious.

The third man to face Joe was considerably larger that the others, he was a man mountain that would give Hoss a run for his money and under other circumstances Joe may have been worried, but Joe was beyond reason. As the man dropped Joe back on his feet Joe swung out at him and landed a blow just below the belt. That was almost the last thing that he remembered. The rock in front of him just laughed at Joe’s effort and the fist that he brought into contact with Joe’s chin rendered him unconscious before he hit the ground. As the man turned to the others to collect his winnings, the two men that Joe had previously beaten took the opportunity to use their feet to get their own back on the helpless boy in front of them. Joe was oblivious to the kicks his body received, but hours later when he awoke he would feel every punch and kick that had been rendered on his torso.

*****

It was a very quiet and despairing Hoss and Adam that returned to the hotel that evening to sleep. They had had another fruitless day looking for signs of Joe and were at a loss as to what to do next. Their father should be arriving the following afternoon and Adam didn’t want to face him with the news that they must impart. He felt responsible for Joe’s disappearance and he knew that even if his father tried to say different, Adam felt he also would hold him responsible. Hoss as ever tried to be optimistic but even he was feeling the strain of not being able to do anything productive in finding Joe. It was kinder that the brothers were unaware of Joe’s present predicament because less than two hour’s ride away Joe was lying unconscious, dirty and bloody with his arms and legs tied once more. Joe had been given very little to eat or drink that day and the beaten he had just taken drained the last of his strength and it would be long into the night before he would waken and begin to feel the pain of the blows that had been rendered on his body.

The following morning Joe was lying with his swollen eyes closed. The dried blood covered half of his face and mattered in his hair. His ribs hurt him the most and he moaned softly, but he was unaware of the sounds that were coming from his own lips. Breathing was an effort and he wished that the all-encompassing pain would stop for a short while and allow him to surrender to sleep once more but it was not to be.

Throughout the night the rain had fallen mercilessly and added to Joe’s misery. His clothes were soaked through to the skin and the earth around him had been turned into a muddy swamp. The men began to move around the camp, packing up and getting ready to disperse. Joe became aware of the activity around him and he tried to open his eyes without much success. Some minutes later, Joe yelled out as he was roughly pulled to his feet and dragged through the trees, supported on either side by two of the men.

Several minutes later, Joe felt the unmistakable chill of cold water around his lower body. As the men lowered him to the ground he also heard the sound of chains clanking together. Joe forced his eyes to open and he peered out with unfocused vision and saw that he was under the bridge he had seen through the trees a couple of days before. The chains were been wrapped round his body and the men were securing him to the underside of the bridge. Joe tried to speak but his lips were dry and swollen and the words that came out were unintelligible. Just then Frank appeared in his line of vision.

“Well Joe, this is the ultimate revenge. Not only do I get you but I get that smart aleck brother of yours at the same time. The high and mighty Adam Cartwright.”

Joe looked at him with a confused expression on his face. What did Adam have to do with this? What was Frank planning?

“Well you see, Joe, by the end of the morning the guys and I will have apprehended that wagon carrying our fortune and later today I have arranged for those dumb brothers of yours to get a message telling them where you are. But don’t get your hopes up because by the time they get here, we will be long gone with no chance of anyone catching us. You know much as I’m looking forward to spending all that money, I would really love to stay here and see those brothers of yours arrive to watch you drown. Even if they are real quick, it won’t make any difference to the outcome ‘cause they’ll have no way of releasing these chains in time before the water has risen above your head and then it will be bye-bye Little Joe. Adam will have to sit there and watch you die knowing that he cannot save you, and that my little friend will be my ultimate revenge.” With that, Frank began to laugh uncontrollably and he patted the side of Joe’s face before stepping back out of the water and shouting, “Goodbye Little Joe, I’m afraid this really is the end of the line. Can’t say it’s been nice knowing you.”

Frank had it all worked out. From the information supplied to him by Carl and the other boys from school, he knew exactly what was going to happen with the money shipment. Frank even had the foresight to pay someone to telegraph San Francisco to inform them that the shipment had had problems and would be leaving a little later than planned. This allowed Frank and his men time to intercept the wagon, kill the four men involved in the transportation of the shipment, and be on their way before anyone was aware that the money was missing.

*****

The cold water that Joe was sitting in had revived his senses and he struggled to come to terms with what Frank had told him. Joe took stock of his situation; he was chained to the bridge and as the rain fell relentlessly the water slowly continued to rise. Looking at the water markings on the riverbank above his head left him in no doubt that if help was not forthcoming he would indeed drown as Frank had predicted. Joe struggled against his chains but he knew it was pointless and a nagging fear at the back of his mind told him that even if someone did arrive they would never have the tools that would be needed to release the chains from his body. Once more he began to shiver, but this time he was not sure how much was due to the cold water seeping through his clothes and how much was from realizing what fate had in store for him.

That afternoon Adam and Hoss were just leaving the sheriff’s office when one of the school children ran up to them and handed them a note. Adam looked in horror at the words written,

“If you want to see your little brother alive again come alone, but hurry, you don’t have much time.” Below this was a rough map giving them directions. The brothers wasted no time on discussion but went quickly to the livery stable, saddled their horses and left town without saying a word to anyone.

It was almost two hours before the brothers arrived at the bridge. Dismounting from their horses they looked around in dismay, there was no sign of Little Joe and they wondered if the note had been a childish joke by some of the children at the school. Hoss wasn’t willing to give in and he began to shout Joe’s name at the top of his lungs over and over again.

Joe had been dozing and Hoss’s voice broke into his dreams and dragged him back to consciousness. His mouth was dry and he could hardly summon up enough saliva to find his voice and reply. “Here, please here, under the bridge” he called.

Adam and Hoss had wandered away from the bridge but on hearing Joe’s croaky voice calling to them they quickly rushed back and slid down the embankment and into the water. Their relief at finding their little brother alive was short lived as they tried to lift him and came across the many chains that held his body to the post supporting the bridge.

The brothers exchanged a concerned glance as they took in Little Joe’s beaten and bloody face, but for the moment they had to swallow their anger at the abuse he had obviously suffered and try to think of a way to get him out of the perilous predicament he was now in. They examined the chains around his body but could find no easy way to release him. The chains weren’t tight there was some leeway but they were wrapped around him again and again and locked into place.

All Joe could think of was how thirsty he was and even the relief at being found was overridden by his need. “Water, please, I need water,” rasped Joe.

Hoss scrambled back up the embankment to his horse for his canteen. Seconds later he was holding Joe’s head to allow the boy to drink.

“Easy now Joe, don’t take too much,” admonished Adam “you don’t want to be sick.”

Hoss took the canteen away before speaking. “Who did this to you, boy?”

Joe looked at each of his brothers before replying in almost a whisper. “It was Frank Carter.”

Hoss and Adam were stunned. How could it be? Where had he come from, how had he tracked Joe down? Joe wanted to tell them what had happened but Adam silenced him. “Time for that later, Joe; first thing we have to do is think of a way to get you out of this.”

Adam and Hoss tried to find a weak link in the chains but to no avail, the chains held fast. It was obvious they were going to need help. Adam motioned to Hoss and they stood up and walked a short way from Joe so he was no longer in earshot. “You need to go back to town for help Hoss; we’ll need men and tools. I’ll wait here with Joe and do what I can.”

“But Adam it’s a long ride back to town. By the time I get back the water’s going to be well risen. A-a-a-dam, it may be too late.” Hoss’s voice trailed off; he couldn’t bear to put into words what he was thinking.

“We’ve no time to discuss it, Hoss; just get going and pray to God you’re in time.”

Hoss couldn’t leave without saying goodbye to Joe. He knelt down in the water and best he could he hugged his little brother to him and said in almost a whisper, “Don’t worry Little Joe, I’ll be back with help and we’ll have you out of their in no time.”

Joe choked back his tears; he couldn’t hug Hoss in return, and as he looked at his retreating back he said very quietly, “Goodbye, Hoss.”

Hoss’s step faltered; he knew by that simple statement that Joe didn’t think it was possible to save him and he knew his brother was saying his last goodbye to him. Hoss couldn’t turn round; he couldn’t let his baby brother see the tears that were beginning to fall. What if he never saw Joe alive again?

As they heard Hoss ride away, Adam turned back to Joe. What could he do to try and make him more comfortable? Joe was obviously chilled to the bone and Adam made to go back to his horse to get his bedroll.

“Don’t leave me, Adam,” Joe’s frightened voice cried out.

“I’ll be right back, buddy; I’m just going to get a blanket to wrap round you.”

Adam returned within a minute and wrapped the blanket round Joe’s shoulders, it would not offer much warmth, but it was all he had. Joe’s teeth were chattering uncontrollably and Adam worried how long it would be before hypothermia set it. They were in for a long wait and Adam could do nothing but sit down in the water next to his brother and put a comforting arm around him.

“Tel me what happened Joe?” Adam thought it best to keep Joe talking the last thing he wanted was for him to go to sleep.

Joe started at the beginning and didn’t leave out any of the details. He couldn’t look at Adam when he recalled the embarrassment of wetting his pants but he felt Adam’s arm squeeze his shoulder in reassurance as Adam listened in silence. When Joe recalled the beating he had taken from the men Adam could feel the anger in him build up. How could these men treat a mere boy in this way? Adam made a silent promise to himself, every last one of them would pay for the way they had treated his brother and he wouldn’t rest until they were either behind bars or at the end of a hangman’s noose.

Joe was still talking and Adam thoughts were brought back to the present once more.

“…and, Adam, he has stolen the money that was meant for the bank. He has to be stopped. Frank will be well away now; you have to catch them.”

“Don’t worry about that, Little Joe; we’ll catch them, have no fear about that, but first we have got to get you out of this.”

Joe became quiet for a second and then when he did speak his voice was raw with emotion. “I’m sorry, Adam.”

“Sorry, Joe? What’ve you got to be sorry for?”

“For being a real pain in the ass and spoiling things for you and Hoss. I guess I messed up pretty bad huh?”

Adam felt humbled, “It’s not you who should be sorry, Joe; it’s me. I got you into this mess, me and my great ideas. You are right; sometimes I can be a real killjoy. Maybe if I didn’t come down on you so hard in the first place…” Adam’s voice trailed off as he was overcome with emotion at the predicament his brother was now in and he could not continue.

The heavy silence between the brothers hung in the air and Joe was anxious to get things on an even keel once more. “You know what I regret. Adam?”

“What’s that, Joe?”

“I never got the chance to get to know that girl better, you know the one in the saloon that you and Hoss dragged me away from.”

Adam chuckled. “Tell you what, Little Joe, when we get you out of this, I promise to take you to see that little girl personally and believe me I won’t be dragging you away this time.”

Smirking at Little Joe, Adam couldn’t resist adding. “I take it Pa finally had that talk with you, you know, the one about how to be careful.”

Little Joe had the good grace to blush, “Oh yeah, he had the talk all right. Don’t worry, Adam, he made sure I got the message.”

Both brothers laughed together, until Adam became aware once more of the water slowly rising above Joe’s chest.

Joe sobered as he too was brought back to reality. “Adam, Hoss can’t make it back in time and even if he does, there’s no way that he’ll be able to get these chains off.”

Adam couldn’t let his thoughts go that way; this was Joe, his baby brother. “Listen Joe I promised your Ma the day you were born that I would always look after you and you wouldn’t want me to break my promise, so believe me when I say, you are going to get out of this.”

Joe so wanted to believe his big brother just as he always had. It wouldn’t be long before the sun went down and as a chill ran through his body, Joe said, “Do you still look at the stars, Adam?”

“The stars in what way?” Adam was puzzled at the change in conversation.

“Well can you remember what Mama died, Pa used to take us outside on a clear evening and point to the brightest star in the sky and say that that was Mama looking down on us.”

Adam smiled “Yes I remember Little Joe, but you were so little; I didn’t think you would still remember.”

“Yes,” whispered Joe softly, “I sill look at the stars and think of Mama. Pa always said that wherever you are in the world everyone looks up at the sky and sees the same stars. When you went to college, I used to look at the sky and imagine that you would be looking up at the same time and seeing the same stars.”

Adam was surprised; Joe never really talked with Adam about the time he was at college. When Adam had returned he had found that the baby boy he had left behind had turned into a very independent stubborn little boy and it had taken quite a while for them to re-establish their relationship.

“Back then I really hated you for going away and I resented you for coming back.”

“I didn’t want to leave, Joe, but it was something I really needed to do. Can you understand that?”

Joe snapped out of his reminiscing. “Sorry Adam, didn’t mean to make you feel guilty. I know you had to go; it’s just at the time I was being a selfish little kid and I didn’t think of you and your needs. I just thought of me and the fact that you had left me.”

Adam smiled. “Well you certainly got your own back. You were a real brat when I came back.”

“Yeah, well, you deserved it. You were such a smart ass; you thought you knew everything. Still do sometimes.”

“That’s because I do, little brother, and don’t you forget it.”

Joe was glad they were back to their normal banter. The trip down memory lane was not something he could face at the moment. There was something about baring your soul that made the situation sound final and Joe tried hard not to let his imagination wander in that direction.

*****

Hoss rode back to the town at a speed he would never normally consider. For once concern for his mount was not on his agenda and he paid no heed to Chubb’s labored breathing under him. How was he going to get his little brother out from under the bridge? To cut through the chains would take too long, that he was sure of. The chains were thicker than most and even if he were able to weaken them, it would still be too late. What was he to do? At last an idea came to him; it might just work – no it had to work, his brother’s life depended on it.

As soon as he entered the town, Hoss rode to the logging company at the far end. Even before he had pulled his horse to a stop he was shouting to the men who worked there. In less than 15 minutes, Hoss had organized a wagon, saws, a large post and most importantly men to help him. They were just about to ride out of town once more when one of the men’s wives ran over and placed blankets, bandages and supplies into the wagon. “Good luck to you, son; I hope you save your brother,” she said, before Hoss shouted to the horses and rode out of town.

As they rode along, Hoss explained to the men the predicament his brother was in. The way he saw it the only way to rescue Joe would be to saw through the post that was holding him, above and below the chains, and then remove him, the chains and the post from the water. This would present them with many dangers. Firstly they would be sawing under water, secondly there was a serious risk that Joe would be injured, and thirdly, once the original post was removed the bridge would in all likelihood collapse on top of them.

Hoss considered all points. Sawing under water would not be an option, the ever rising water would see to that. As for Joe being hurt, again they did not have an option, better Joe was hurt than dead. It was only the third option that Hoss felt he may have any control over. Before they removed Joe he hoped to replace the existing post with a temporary post they had brought with them. While some of the men were rescuing Joe, a couple of others could cut and fit the post to size. Hopefully it would hold long enough for them all to get out safely.

*****

Adam looked at his little brother and seeing the pained expression on his face Adam asked, “How you doing, little buddy; does it hurt much?”

Joe smiled and opened his eyes. Adam had not called him ‘little buddy’ for years and it sounded strange. Joe’s injuries were not hurting as much as they had. The cold water was acting like an anesthetic.

“I’m fine, Adam,” Joe replied, and Adam had to smile; even now Joe was guaranteed to give his standard answer.

As the time went by, Adam tried not to show it, but his anxiety was beginning to surface. The water was now reaching up to Joe’s chin and rising. Joe’s teeth had stopped chattering long ago and hypothermia was beginning to set in. Adam himself was frozen to the bone and his attempts to keep Joe talking were failing. Joe no longer had the willpower to carry on and he hardly responded to Adam’s questions and sleep was threatening to take him.

“Come on, buddy, don’t you go to sleep on me,” said Adam. He reached over to pat Joe on the face but stopped in mid air, how could he even think of inflicting any more pain to his brother’s battered face? Taking him by the shoulders he shook him gently instead. Joe reluctantly opened his eyes, but Adam was losing the battle.

The water had risen to Joe’s mouth when Adam heard the unmistakable sound of a wagon above him. Seconds later Hoss ran down the embankment to join his brothers. Adam looked at him and then back at Joe. Utter despair reflected in Adam’s face as he sat there trying to support Joe’s head. He felt completely helpless sitting there as if waiting for his brother to drown.

Hoss moved forward “I’m here, Joe, I brought help, boy. We’re gonna have you out of here in no time.”

When Joe did not respond but looked at him with dull eyes, Hoss reprimanded, “Don’t you go giving up on me, Little Joe. You just keep fighting or so help me I’ll pound yer good and proper.”

This was just what Joe needed and he even managed a slight smile.

The men made their way down the embankment and into the water, carrying the large post and saws with them. Adam looked quizzically at Hoss.

“There just ain’t time to explain, Adam; just you look after Little Joe.”

Adam nodded acceptance. The men set to work at once and taking their places in the water they began to saw on the post above and below the chains that held Little Joe. It was difficult work as in the main they were working blind and there was always a risk that they would cut the boy they were trying to rescue.

Time was going on and as Adam looked at Joe he knew he had to do something quick, it would only be minutes before the water would rise above Joe’s nose and cut off his air supply. He needed to get air to his brother for a few minutes more and he looked round frantically for an idea. Rushing to the embankment Adam grabbed a large reed and was back at Joe’s side within moments. Why hadn’t he thought of this before?

“Listen Joe, listen to me. Do you remember when we were kids and we used to swim in the lake? Can you recall how we played tricks on Pa by staying underwater and breathing through reeds? Well I want you to do that again Little Joe. Are you listening to me?”

Adam’s voice was so touched with panic that it penetrated into Joe’s subconscious and he opened his eyes and nodded. Joe’s body was beginning to shut down and he was beginning to care less and less what happened to him. He wished his brother would leave him alone but even in his desperate plight he knew better than to disobey Adam.

Adam placed the reed into Joe’s mouth as the water rose above his nose. “Remember to breathe through the reed Joe, just breath. Come on Joe, don’t give up, we’re nearly there. Joe.” The last word was said in utter anguish. Joe wasn’t breathing; he was drowning.

Joe could feel the panic in him rising. He was no longer passive, but struggling to draw breath. His air supply had been cut off and he had tried to breathe through the reed, but Adam had forgotten that when they played this game as children, Joe had held the reed in place with one hand and the other hand had nipped his nose in order to make it easier to breathe through his mouth. With both Joe’s hands tied to his sides, Adam had tried to hold the reed in place but that did not stop the water from going up Joe’s nose and when he tried to draw breath his throat constricted and his breathing reflex locked. Joe gagged and the water caught in his throat. Joe struggled helplessly for as long as he could but as he felt the last breath leaving his body, he no longer seemed to care. He wanted to shout to Adam and tell him not to worry; he didn’t want to fight anymore, he just needed to sleep. As the darkness claimed him his last thought was of his beloved Pa; he had never got to say goodbye. Adam watched in horror as Joe drowned in front of him. In just over a minute Little Joe’s body went limp and he struggled no more.

“No” shouted Adam as he dived his head under the water. He ripped the reed from his brother’s mouth and replaced it with his own. Adam held Joe’s nose and breathed air into his brother’s body. Lifting his head from the water for only a couple of seconds, he took a deep breath and then ducked under the water again to breathe air into Little Joe. Adam did this out of instinct, he had no way of knowing if he could help his brother, he just wasn’t prepared to stand there and watch him die.

Hoss had no time to react to his brother’s dilemma, together with the other men he concentrated on cutting through the last inch of the post. Seconds later the post was severed in two places and the men fought to hold it in place while they put in the replacement support. The water around them turned red with blood and it became obvious that the saw had cut into Joe’s flesh, but at that time that was the least of their worries. As soon as they were happy with it, Hoss used his almighty strength to pull the original post, Little Joe and his chains bodily out of the water and to safety. Two of the other men grabbed hold of Adam and dragged the exhausted man to the embankment. Seconds later the temporary post keeled over and the bridge collapsed into the water.

As Adam lay on the muddy embankment trying to regain his breath, Hoss concentrated on Joe. Joe’s eyes were closed, his face was ashen and his lips and eyelids were tinged blue. Hoss turned him over and began to pound his back in an effort to get the water from his lungs. As time passed and Little Joe failed to breathe, the men were ready to pull Hoss away from his brother’s lifeless body, when a gurgling sound emitted from Joe’s throat. Joe began to vomit and a stream of dark, dirty water came from his mouth. Joe was sick several times before losing consciousness once more. Hoss cried with relief; his brother was alive, but barely. Now the race was on to keep him alive and get him back to town.

Joe’s body was frozen beyond belief and his back was bleeding from where the saw had cut into him. Hoss knew that he had to get him warm as soon as possible to prevent him from dying of hypothermia. By this time Adam was beginning to revive and he instructed Hoss to put Joe’s body next to his own so that the heat from Hoss’s massive body would penetrate into Joe.

Hoss picked up Little Joe and climbing into the wagon, he unbuttoned his own clothing and gathering his small brother to him, he placed him next to his warm skin. Joe was frozen and Hoss could feel the heat from his own body been sucked out of him and into Joe’s. Adam climbed up with his brothers and draped blankets around Hoss shoulders and then he too huddled against them trying to pass on what little warmth he could from his own body. Several times during the journey back to town Joe seemed to stop breathing and each time Adam and Hoss screamed at him and shook him until he started breathing again.

“Don’t you dare die on me, little brother, so help me I’ll blister your hide good and proper if you don’t start breathing. Pa will never forgive me if I don’t take you home Little Joe, so I’m telling you boy, you’d better keep breathing,” said Hoss over and over again.

They never knew if their screaming and shaking helped Joe to breathe again but they didn’t care, just as long as it worked. As for Joe, every time he thought he could drop off to sleep, his brothers’ shouted in his ear and woke him. He’d tell Pa on them; why couldn’t they leave him alone? Days from now Joe would thank them, but in the next few hours it was a battle of wills and so far the brothers were winning.

*****

As Adam and Hoss transported Little Joe back to town, Ben was getting off the stage. He had expected the boys to meet him and was surprised to find they weren’t waiting for him. If Joe was missing, then Ben decided his first port of call would be the sheriff’s office, maybe he would throw some light on what was going on.

As Ben crossed the street he heard someone calling his name and turned to find Jonas Morgan walking towards him.

“Ben old friend, so good to see you. Just wish it was under different circumstances.”

Jonas led Ben over to the hotel and sat him down and told him everything that had happened up to the time that Joe had gone missing. He didn’t have any knowledge of the developments that had taken place that day and so was not able to shed any light on where Ben’s older sons were at that point in time.

Ben could not settle to wait for information and he made his way to the sheriff’s office. The sheriff was of no help, he had bigger problems to deal with than the whereabouts of Ben’s sons; a substantial amount of cash had been intercepted and stolen while being transported to one of the largest banks in the town. Four men had been killed defending it and the sheriff was organizing a posse to go after the men responsible.

As Ben left the sheriff’s office, he saw a wagon pull up outside the doctor’s office across the street. Ben gave the wagon no more than a cursory glance, but as he turned to walk towards the hotel, Adam called out to him.

Ben hurried over to the wagon as Adam jumped down into the street. His eldest son looked done it, his hair and clothes were filthy and his face was white and drawn. Adam reached back into the wagon and Ben watched in horror as Hoss unfolded his coat and handed the body of his youngest son into Adam’s arms.

Without a word, Adam rushed into the doctor’s office followed by his father and sibling. Luckily the doctor was still on duty and he was quick to come to Adam’s aid. The doctor quickly got to work on Little Joe and the Cartwright’s could do nothing but stand and watch as Joe’s life hung in the balance.

The following morning, the three older Cartwright’s were still sitting in the doctor’s waiting room anxious for news on Little Joe. Adam and Hoss had explained all that had happened in the previous couple of days to Ben and sat shamefaced in front of their father at the way they had cared for their little brother.

“I’m really sorry, Pa. This is my entire fault. I should never have suggested that Joe go to that school in the first place,” said Adam.

“No you shouldn’t,” retorted Ben angrily. “What you should have done was sent him on the first stage home and let me deal with him.” Looking at his eldest son’s face, Ben’s temper cooled and his voice softened, “But what’s done is done. Thinking about it, I might have been tempted to do the same, if I was in your position. That scallywag needs a lesson now and then.”

Just then the door to the doctor’s surgery opened and the doctor walked out.

“Well he’s not out of the woods yet” informed the doctor “but he’s certainly a fighter. I’ve treated the wound to his back and hopefully there won’t be any infection. He needed a lot of stitches and he’s going to have quite a scar, but I’m sure he won’t worry about that, just so long as that pretty face of his heals all right. As for the rest of his symptoms, we’ll just have to wait and see. The hypothermia and the dirty water he drank could still cause problems, but so far so good.”

The three of them made their way into the room to see Joe lying sleeping. He was turned on his side so as not to put pressure on his injured back. Ben sat down and looked at his youngest son. His face was badly bruised and he looked impossibly young, his normal golden tan had been replaced with a deathly pallor and his beautiful curls were still matted and bloody from his experience. Stoking the side of his cheek Ben whispered, “Little Joe, wake up son, Pa’s here.”

Joe struggled to find his way back to consciousness, his father was talking to him and he so wanted to see his Pa. Slowly awakening from the horrible dreams he was having, Joe’s eyes flickered for a moment before they were able to focus on the loving chocolate orbs gazing back at him. “Hi, Pa,” he said sleepily.

“Hi yourself,” replied a very emotional Ben. At this moment in time he wanted nothing more than to hug Joe to him, but in his present condition it was not possible and Ben had to be content with stroking the side of Joe’s face.

Joe’s nightmares came back to him and he tried to grab his Pa’s hand, “Pa, Frank Carter, he’s here Pa.”

“Hush Joe, Carter’s not here. You’re safe and no one’s gonna hurt you. Your Pa’s here, just go back to sleep son, everything’s gonna be all right.”

Joe’s eyes closed and he fell back asleep; the bad dreams were gone, his Pa had come and chased the bogeyman away just as he did when Joe was small.

*****

In the days that followed, Joe’s recovery was remarkable and it was only the bruising to his face that hinted at the experience he had been through. It never ceased to amaze Ben at how resilient the youngest member of the family was.

The boys from the school who were involved with the Carter gang were brought to justice. All of the parents were shocked about their sons’ involvement and worked with the sheriff to find out just how much information the boys had passed to the gang. Carl was the ringleader and it was a very contrite Mr. Cuthbertson who visited Joe at the hotel to apologize for the way he had treated him.

Towards the end of the week Joe had another visitor. He was sitting in his room looking out of the window when the door opened and Ron Shepherd walked in. “Hi Joe, long time no see.”

Joe was speechless and genuinely surprised to see the man before him. He stood and embraced the friend he had not seen for almost two years. If it had not been for Ron, Joe was sure that his first encounter with Frank Carter two years ago would have turned out very differently. Ron had not only prevented Carter from beating Joe even more than he did but was ultimately responsible for saving Joe’s life.

Two years ago Carter was in jail and should have been hanged, but friends had broken him out and he was never heard of again until now. Ron Shepherd hadn’t given up hope of finding Carter and when the Sheriff had wired him to inform him of his involvement with stealing the money shipment and killing the guards, Ron had immediately traveled to San Francisco. It wasn’t until he arrived that he learned of the abuse that Joe had suffered at his hands once more.

Long into the night Joe and Ron talked over the events of the past week. It was good for Joe to unburden himself with someone who could truly understand what he had been through. Ron had witnessed first hand how cruel and sadistic Carter could be and he was able to empathize with Joe and help him come to terms with his nightmares.

Ron had several leads to go on and he was determined to keep tracking Carter and his men and bring them to justice. Joe declared to his family that he wanted to go with him, but his father wouldn’t hear of it.

“Sorry Joe, I know how you feel,” said Ben “but you are returning to the Ponderosa with me if I have to hog-tie you to your horse.”

Joe began to protest, but his father took on his most stubborn stance and Joe decided to argue would be pointless. There were times when his father might be swayed but this was not one of them.

The evening before they were due to leave for home the four of them were having dinner when Adam declared,

“Pa, Joe and I have something to do this evening.”

“What’s that, son?”

“It’s just I promised Joe I would take him to see someone before we left and since this is our last night it needs to be tonight.”

As realization of what Adam had in mind dawned on Joe, a broad smile spread across his face. Ben noted his youngest son’s delight and added, “Well don’t exert yourself Joe, remember you’re still convalescing.”

A blush spread across Joe’s face; could his father have any idea of where they were going? Adam put a hand in front of his mouth to suppress the chuckle that threatened to emit. Joe grabbed his jacket and hurriedly stood up from the table.

“How long are you likely to be, Adam?”

“Oh just an hour or so Pa,” said Adam before he caught sight of his brother’s pouting face, “or maybe you better make that two.” The smile returned to Joe’s face.

Ben then gave Joe his attention once more. “And Joseph, no poker games. You and I still have to have that little discussion when we return home.”

As Joe walked out of the hotel he couldn’t help bemoan his lot. After all he had been through to hide the poker game from his Pa, he had still found out. Although his father may have refrained from the lecture while Joe was ill, he knew that that was one homecoming discussion he would not be looking forward to.

***The End***

Boy to Man Series:

Boy to Man to Boy
The Best Days of our Lives
To Become a Man

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