Word Count: 20,000
With bleary eyes, Joe stared at the breakfast plate before him. The eggs had been sitting there for so long they were beginning to congeal and the sight caused bile to rise in his throat. Joe pushed his plate away to the side and took a sip of coffee.
“So, exactly what time was it?”
Joe flinched. His father’s loud bass voice seemed to reverberate inside his head.
“Yes. What time did you get home last night?”
“I’m not really sure Pa. It wasn’t late.”
“Must have been pretty late Joe,” Hoss said between mouthfuls. “I never heard you and it was nigh on midnight when I turned in.”
“Is that so?”
Ben threw his young son a questioning look.
Little Joe glared at Hoss, who seemed not to notice.
“Joseph, just where…”
“Come on Joe. If you’ve finished we might as well get started.”
Adam cut his father off mid sentence and winking at Joe he left the table. Little Joe was quick to follow before his father had a chance to question him further. Ben shook his head in exasperation and muttered something under his breath.
“Reckon I’ll be off too Pa,” Hoss said. “I’ll see you round noon.”
“Hoss, now you be sure to take those extra branding irons with you. Charlie’s waiting on them.”
After Hoss had left, Ben poured himself another cup of coffee and took it across to his desk. He pulled a large ledger out from a drawer, a slight frown settling on his face as he opened the book and peered at the columns of figures.
Outside in the yard, Joe was standing staring after Hoss who, having gathered all that he needed, was already on his way to check on the herd.
“Come on Joe, let’s get the wagon hitched up.”
Adam placed a hand on Joe’s back propelling him towards the partly loaded wagon that stood near the barn door. Joe said nothing, reluctantly allowing himself to be guided across the yard. All he really wanted was to go back to bed, but he knew there was no way that wish was going to be granted. He pondered on why it was that whenever he was out having a good time, he could never remember how bad it felt the next morning. Next time he would only have one beer, or two at the most. Leaning on the side of the wagon with a dreamy smile on his face, he remembered the pretty new saloon girl with her red hair and silly laugh. Adam’s voice, loud in his ear, broke into his reverie.
“Joe, stop day dreaming will you.”
With a start Joe looked at his older brother.
“Finish loading the supplies and don’t forget the tent, it’ll be cold tonight. I’m just going to saddle Sport.”
Joe stowed the tent and double-checked the food supplies, wondering why Adam needed his horse. He had been looking forward to a nice little nap while Adam drove the wagon out to the north pasture. By the time Adam came out of the barn leading Sport, Joe had finished up.
“Hey Adam, how come you need your horse? I thought we were supposed to be repairing the fence round that boggy area…together!”
“We are little brother, don’t fret. When I was up there last week I noticed signs of a mountain lion. I just want to check around, see if there are any fresh tracks. Don’t want to be moving cattle up there if there’s a cougar on the prowl. It won’t take me long. By the time you get the wagon unloaded I’ll be there.”
“That’s great. Hey, I’ve got an idea. Why don’t I do all the work, then you can go off riding round the ranch, admiring the scenery?”
Adam gave Joe a sideways look then cleared his throat.
“Kinda touchy this morning aren’t we?”
He gave Joe a hearty slap on the back.
“You…uh…wouldn’t have a headache or anything would you Joe?”
Ignoring Adam’s teasing, Little Joe climbed up on to the wagon and took hold of the reins. With a quick grin Adam turned to mount Sport, his lithe body swinging easily into the saddle. Looking back at Joe he signalled to move out.
“Come on little brother. Once more unto the breach!”
Joe groaned to himself as he flicked the reins. Adam in a Shakespearean mood was all he needed.
When they were a few miles from home Adam split up from Joe, swinging off to the left. Little Joe watched with obvious admiration as his brother rode away. Adam was an excellent horseman and Joe had to admit that Sport was almost as handsome as his own horse. Joe had long ago decided that Adam loved Sport just as much as he loved Cochise.
Adam just doesn’t show his feelings like he should.
He gave a wry smile, remembering that Adam didn’t mind showing his feelings when he got mad, especially if it was his little brother who was bearing the brunt of that particular case of mad. Still, apart from the Shakespeare, Adam seemed to be in a good mood, and Little Joe decided that it was going to be a good few days.
Joe drove to the pasture taking one of the ranch roads that criss-crossed the vast Ponderosa. The fresh air was clearing his head and he began to enjoy the drive, although hunger pangs and loud rumblings from his stomach made him wish now that he had eaten breakfast. Mentally Joe began to organise his morning. First thing he would start a campfire and get some coffee going. Next job would be to unload the wagon and pitch the tent. When Adam arrived they would have coffee and he could eat something before they started in on the work. Joe gave a little nod, satisfied with his plan.
On the edge of Ponderosa land, another camp had been set up. A small fire was burning, the sparse amount of smoke being dispersed through the trees. A middle-aged man was checking his gun as he leant against the trunk of a huge pine tree. His work clothes had seen better days, and his hat, once light in colour, was soiled and greasy. Unshaven and with lank greying hair, his general appearance was dirty and unkempt. A younger man, slightly built and barely out of his teens, was sat on the ground staring morosely into the fire. He was no better dressed, and a haunted look shadowed his face. At the sound of an approaching horse, the older man holstered his gun and picked up a rifle. He watched the trail expectantly. Minutes later a rider came into view. He was as ragged and dirty as the other two men. Deep set eyes stared out from his thin and bony face.
“Well? What d’ya see? What are those high and mighty Cartwrights up to?”
“Got one right where we want him Pa,” the man answered as he dismounted. “Lady Luck sure is smiling on us, yes siree.”
The man grinned and his eyes flashed with a mean cruelty. He squatted by the fire to pour himself some coffee.
Judd Wilson was not a patient man.
“Explain yourself boy.”
“Well I waited near the house just like you said, an’ sure enough two of ‘em came right along by.”
“You sure they was Cartwrights?”
“I’m sure, got a real good look at ‘em. The oldest one was on horseback and after a few miles he rode off by himself. The young’un, the kid, he’s the one on the wagon.”
“Wagon. Is he going to town?
“Nah. Wagon’s all loaded up with posts and the like. He’s gonna be mending fences no more than a half-hour’s ride right from this very spot. And he’s all by himself!”
“Kyle, are you absolutely sure it’s the Cartwright kid?”
“I told ya Pa, I got a real good look. It’s the kid all right.”
“Let’s get this done then.”
Kyle gave a malicious laugh.
“Yes sir Pa. Now to get our hands on some real money.”
He threw down his cup and rubbed his hands together with expectant pleasure.”
“Newt, you liven yourself up boy. You hear what your brother’s been sayin’? We got us work to do.”
Newt stood up, twisting his hat in his hands.
“It ain’t right Pa,” he said quietly, looking down at his feet.
“AIN’T RIGHT! What ain’t right about it? Ain’t right after what happened to your brother Hank. What’s the matter with you boy, you ready to stand by and let em get away with what they did to Hank?”
Newt slowly shook his head as he began to douse the fire. “Hank was guilty, all Cartwright did was tell what he saw in court. It was the judge what sent Hank to prison. I just don’t think…”
Judd Wilson landed a stinging slap on his son’s face.
“I ain’t asking for ya to think, just do as ya told. Git them horses ready.”
Newt rubbed his cheek, and with a sullen look went to the horses. Ten minutes later the three Wilsons were headed towards the pasture where Joe Cartwright was busy setting up camp, Newt leading an extra horse. As they travelled Judd went over his plan.
“We’ll ride in slow an’ friendly like. Get jawin’ with the boy, ask if he knows of any work hereabouts. Get close enough so’s we can grab him. No gun play. I want this done nice and quiet. Ya hear what I’m saying Kyle, no shooting.”
“Sure Pa, I hear ya.”
Kyle rode close to his brother and gave him a shove.
“An’ what about you little brother, you gonna remember no shooting or are you too yella’ to even think about it.”
When Newt ignored him, Kyle let out a mocking laugh.
Little Joe had been busy getting things organised. He had unhitched the horses and picketed them so they could graze. The wagon was unloaded and the coffee was beginning to bubble in the pot on the campfire. Joe stood still for a moment looking about him, his eyes covering the horizon as well as the nearby land. Other than a hawk high in the sky, rising on thermals, Joe was totally alone. All was quiet and peaceful. The sun had driven the chill from the air, and the work had warmed him up. Joe threw his jacket into the back of the wagon then removed his gun belt. The iron weighed heavy and he felt he could work better without it strapped to his leg. He tucked it under the wagon seat next to the rifle. Next he pulled the tent out from its canvas bag. It had been Adam’s decision to camp out until the fence was finished, saving time travelling back and forth to the house.
Joe whistled to himself as he worked at putting up the tent. He enjoyed camping out, and when there were just the two of them out on the range, he got along real well with Adam. He was actually looking forward to the next few days. It would be hard work, but in the evening they would sit drinking coffee and ‘chewing the fat’ as old Charlie called it. Joe never could tell if the tales Adam told round a campfire were the honest truth, or if big brother embellished them to make them more exciting or amusing, using all manner of accents in the telling. Ever since his pa had allowed him to camp overnight with his big brothers, Joe had loved the end of the day, sat around the fire; he even had some tales of his own to tell. Funny thing was he could never remember falling asleep. Seemed like one minute he was listening to Adam talking, and next thing Hoss would be shaking him telling him to be up and at ‘em.
When the Wilsons reached a small knoll and could see Joe Cartwright working, Judd stopped, his eyes scanning the surrounding countryside.
“Now what?” Kyle wanted to know.
“Just being careful. I’ve waited too long for anything to go wrong now. All right. Now just ride in real easy like.”
He kicked his horse and rode down the slope towards the man and wagon below.
Lost in his thoughts, Joe was startled by the sound of approaching horses. He was well on Ponderosa land and was surprised to see the horsemen. He squinted into the light, trying to make out who they were. He didn’t recognise the men and had an uneasy feeling as they rode towards him. He walked towards the wagon where he had left his weapons.
“That coffee sure smells good. Be all right if we step down mister?”
Without waiting for a reply the oldest of the men dismounted.
“This is private land. What are you doing here?”
“Well we was just lookin’ for work. Looks like maybe you could do with a hand. You all alone here?” the man asked looking around.
“Look, we’re not hiring right now. It’s best you move on.”
Joe’s eyes darted from one man to another. All wore gun belts and had rifles. Sure that he was in trouble, he gauged his chance of making it to the wagon and his guns. He figured it to be slim. The younger man leading a horse held back, but the third mean looking man was edging his horse closer and closer towards Joe.
“What d’ya think Kyle? He look like he needs help?”
The older Wilson reached up to his saddle and took down a rope. By now Kyle was squarely between Joe and the wagon, climbing down from his horse.
“I reckon so Pa.”
Before Joe could say or do anything, Adam rounded a clump of trees riding at an easy lope. In a split second Kyle had drawn his gun and fired. Adam lurched forward in the saddle, barely holding on. Sport’s ears went back and he tossed his head, prancing nervously he unseated his wounded rider who fell hard to the ground. Sport whinnied in terror and fled, stirrups flying as he raced away.
Joe sprinted towards Adam. With lightening speed Judd Wilson sent his rope snaking after Joe, pulling him to a sudden standstill as the loop at the end of the lariat encircled his body, tightening around his chest. Desperate to reach Adam, Joe struggled to get the rope off but it only pulled tighter pinning his arms to his body. He was jerked off his feet and pulled backwards. Still Joe struggled in vain to get to Adam who lay motionless. Kyle Wilson ran to Joe, dragging him to his feet, only to punch him in the stomach. Winded, Joe fell to the ground again, his knees hitting with a jarring crack. Pulling piggin string from his pocket, Kyle first tied Joe’s hands together, then his feet, rendering him helpless. Once more Kyle drew his gun from his holster, and Joe steeled himself to be the next victim. To Joe’s surprise Judd Wilson grabbed the gun from his son’s hand.
“What the hell d’ya think ya doing?”
Kyle indicated Adam’s still form.
“I’m just going to make sure he’s finished.”
“Didn’t I tell ya no shooting. Who knows how many riders there are hereabouts, an’ here you are planning on shooting a dead man.” He showed his displeasure by spitting, the glob just missing Kyle’s shabby boot.
Kyle grabbed his gun back and thrust it into his holster.
“What did ya want, just let him ride on up?”
“You told me the boy was alone. Next thing we’ll have the old man riding in.”
While the two argued, Joe watched Adam praying for some sign of life. As though reading Joe’s mind, Kyle walked over to his victim and peered down at him. First he jiggled Adam with his foot, and when there was no reaction he pushed Adam over on to his back. Two vicious kicks drove into Adam’s body then another snapped Adam’s head to the side. Joe watched in horror as Kyle brutally attacked his brother, his stomach lurching painfully with each ferocious kick, screaming for him to stop. There was no sound or movement from the fallen man. Kyle swaggered back to where his father and brother were waiting, a smug look on his face.
“Just checking. You wouldn’t want to leave a live one would ya? It’d spoil your plan.”
“You watch your mouth boy. We gottta get outta here, no telling who might have heard that shot.”
Judd bent down to cut the rope tying Joe’s feet. Immediately Joe began to kick out at the man who managed to side step away then roughly hauled Joe to his feet.
“You murdering bastards,” Joe yelled at his captors, earning himself a back-hander across the mouth. As he was led away Joe turned back to look forlornly at his brother lying on the ground.
Adam was dead. How could it be?
As the shock of what had happened set in Joe began to shake uncontrollably. His head was spinning, his mouth dry as dust, and waves of nausea passed over him. His knees shook so that he could barely stand.
He had seen it happen but couldn’t believe it.
Judd forced Joe up on to the horse that Newt was leading, and tied his captive’s hands to the pommel. Next he tied one end of a rope to Joe’s left ankle, and after passing the rope under the horse’s belly, tied the other end to Joe’s right ankle. There would be no escape. Joe turned in the saddle, unable to pull his gaze away from the fallen figure of his brother, lost in the sheer horror of seeing Adam shot down without a chance. They moved out, Newt leading Joe’s horse.
Joe became aware that the pace was quickening. How long they had been riding? It could have been minutes or hours. He shook his head trying to drag his mind away from Adam. The skies had darkened and light rain was falling. Uncontrollable shivering shook Joe’s body .
Got to pull myself together. They’ve killed Adam. Can’t let them get away with it. Have to stay alert, stay alive. Got to stay alive for Adam’s sake. I’m the only one who knows.
Joe tried to take note of the country they were passing through. It looked familiar, but then most of the land around here looked similar, he needed a landmark, and he began to look around, searching for clues as to his whereabouts. Judd Wilson pulled up sharply. Kyle scowled with barely concealed annoyance.
“What now? Let’s just keep going.”
Judd glared at his son, and then once more Joe felt the man’s hand hard across his face.
“What you doing boy? Planning your escape?”
Joe stared defiantly at him for a moment, his jaw tight, anger in his eyes, a red handprint rapidly marking his cheek.
“You won’t get away with it. My pa will track you down like the scum that you are. We’ll find you; you don’t stand a chance. You’ll hang for killing my brother, all of you.”
“We? Seems to me like you ain’t in a position to do anything. And as for your Pa, Ben Cartwright’s gonna suffer a whole lot more ‘fore this is over. Kyle, blindfold him. Any more smart remarks and I’ll gag ya.”
Kyle rode up and tied a dirty bandana around Joe’s eyes. They rode on and on, then began to climb and Joe could hear the horses’ shoes ringing on stony ground.
Hills, but which hills?
If only he had taken notice of which way they had left the pasture, but all he could think of was Adam, lying so still on the ground.
Stop thinking of Adam. Stay alert.
The ranch paperwork was hard going and Ben found himself watching the clock, waiting for it to strike twelve. He had drunk numerous cups of coffee, telling himself it would help him to concentrate, all the time knowing that each cup was just an excuse for a break from the interminable pages of figures. The office work was the part of ranching he liked the least, and was the one chore he would dearly love to pass on to one of his sons, but none wanted the job. Adam often helped out but even he, despite his bookish ways, would rather be riding the range chasing after cantankerous beasts than take on the book keeping. At last he heard the familiar sound that he had subconsciously been listening for. The huge front door burst open, and Hoss shouted out to him.
“Hey Pa. How’s the books coming along?”
“Hoss, about time you got here. Almost ate without you.”
“Aw come on Pa, you knew I’d be here.”
Hoss rounded the wall to the study, looking around the great room.
“Where’s Adam? How come he left Sport loose in the yard?”
“What do you mean? Adam isn’t here. He and Joe took the wagon. They’ll be gone for a couple of days at least.”
“Well Sport’s in the yard, and he’s saddled up.”
Ben pushed aside the ledger and hurried outside to see for himself. True enough, there was Sport, standing at the hitching rail where Hoss had tied him. The horse seemed to be fine, but he was saddled and Adam’s new rifle was in the leather scabbard. Ben patted the horse’s neck and ran his hand over the wet saddle.
“Hoss, did you see your brothers leave this morning?
Hoss shook his head.
“They was still loading the wagon when I left Pa.”
Ben was confused and becoming worried. His mind went back to the conversations that morning. Adam had said he and Joe were going to fix that fence in the north pasture. They were going to camp out. Obviously he had intended going somewhere else, but where?
“He must be in trouble or had an accident, but where on earth is he? We’re going to have to go look for him. Saddle my horse for me would you Hoss.”
“Now come on Pa, you don’t know Adam’s in trouble. I ‘spect Sport just got away from him an come on home.”
“Hoss, when have any of you boys ever just let your horse wander away from you? Just wish I knew where to start looking.”
“Little Joe’ll know. Adam must’ve told him where he was going.”
“You’re right. I’ll go get my coat.”
Within five minutes the two men were on their way to the pasture where Adam and Joe were meant to be working, all thoughts of food forgotten. Ben’s heart was filled with dread as they approached the meadow, fearing an accident had befallen his oldest boy. He was still puzzled as to why Adam had taken Sport, and why he had said nothing at breakfast about doing anything other than working with Joe. The wagon was clearly in sight, the horses grazing under the trees where they had been picketed, and the tent had been pitched. But there was no sign of either Adam or Little Joe.
Hoss shouted to his brothers.
“ADAM! JOE! WHERE ARE YOU?”
Ben dismounted and began to look around. Squatting down, he picked up the coffee-pot which stood in the remnants of a fire.
“Don’t look like they’ve even made a start on the fence,” Hoss said as he came to stand by his father.
Ben put down the coffee-pot and stood up again, peering around him, searching for some sign of his sons.
“Hoss, over there.”
Ben ran to where he had spied Adam lying on the ground. He knelt down next to his son and took a sharp intake of breath when he saw the bloody wound on Adam’s back. With Hoss’s help Ben gently turned his son over to find a similar wound in his chest.
“Shot. Bullet’s gone right through.”
Desperately Ben began feeling for a pulse.
“Is he breathing?” Hoss asked taking hold of his brother’s hand.
“I don’t know, I can’t find a pulse”
Ben’s voice sounded panicky. Hoss put his head down on to his brother’s chest.
“I’m sure I can hear his heartbeat, but he feels cold, he’s soaked through. Look at his face Pa! We gotta get him home.”
Once more Ben’s eyes searched the area.
“You tend to Adam, I’ll find him.”
Although Adam’s wounds no longer appeared to be bleeding, his shirt was seeped with blood and soaking from the drizzle that was still falling. With shaking hands Ben took off his own coat using it to cover his son, trying to instil some warmth into his cold body, all the while praying to the Lord to let his son live. He talked to Adam, wanting to let him know he was with him, that he would be all right.
“Pa, I found Joe’s jacket slung in the wagon, his gun belt and rifle too, but there’s no sign of Joe. Looks like there were at least a couple of men here and a few horses. Prints aren’t too clear, rain’s muddied them. No way Joe would have left Adam. Whoever’s done this must have taken Little Joe.”
For the life of him Ben couldn’t comprehend what had happened to his sons. Fear clutched at his heart. He forced himself to think.
“Hoss, bring over the wagon. We’ll get Adam inside, then you ride for the doctor and sheriff.”
Without a word Hoss quickly hitched the horses to the wagon and drove it to the spot where Adam lay. Very carefully they lifted Adam in, covering him as best they could.
“Pa, you sure ya can manage when you get home?”
“I’ll manage, you just get the doctor.”
Ben climbed up on to the wagon seat. He gave a backward glance at his son lying so still, then swivelled round and guided the horses back on to the road and headed for home, driving as fast as he dared.
Hoss urged Chub on to a full gallop. It was a long hard ride, but the horse seemed to sense his rider’s urgency and raced flat out. At the doctor’s office, Hoss was alarmed to find it locked up. He hammered on the door and shouted for the doctor before he realised that there was a note pinned to the doorframe.
GONE TO THOMPSON FARM
“Dadburnit, I just passed by there,” Hoss muttered to himself.
He climbed back on to his worn out horse and made his way down the muddy street to the sheriff’s office. Sheriff Roy Coffee was sat outside the jail, a cup of coffee in his hand. Sheltered from the rain by the porch, he was watching the street.
“Hoss. Good to see ya! How’s things out at the Ponderosa?”
Hoss dismounted and stepped up on to the boardwalk.
“Roy, Adam’s near dead, shot. And Little Joe’s missing. I just come to get the Doc but he ain’t there.”
Roy jumped to his feet
“I saw Doc Martin leave a while back. He’s gone to check on young Johnny Thompson, he broke his leg the other day. What’s this ‘bout Adam and Little Joe? Hoss, you’d just better tell me what’s been going on.”
“I don’t know what’s been going on. Come on Roy, you coming with me?”
Hoss stepped off the boardwalk.
“Now just hold on Hoss, calm down for a minute will ya. Tell me what’s been happening.”
“”I just told ya Roy, I don’t know. Adam’s horse came home. Me and Pa went looking for Adam, we went to ask Joe if he knew anything. That’s when we found Adam shot and Joe gone.”
“Where exactly was this?”
“North pasture. That’s where Joe should’ve been. There’s tracks on the ground. Whoever shot Adam has taken Joe. I’m riding out to the Thompson’s to get the Doc, then I’m getting the men together and start searching, with or without ya.”
“Now you know I’m gonna be after these fellas. Before you go rushing off Hoss, tell me this. Your brothers having any trouble with anyone? Can you think of any reason why anyone would want to kill Adam, kidnap Little Joe?”
“There ain’t no reason that I know Roy. But I’ll get Joe back and if Adam dies I swear I’ll kill whoever did this.”
Hoss’s usual gentle countenance was grim and determined.
“Roy, I’m wasting time here. I gotta get the Doc to Adam. Then I gotta get back out to the pasture. This rain’s gonna wash them tracks away.”
“All right Hoss, I’ll get my deputy and meet you at the ranch. Wait for me, I need you to show me where this happened. And Hoss, I need for us to work together on this.”
Hoss’s steely blue eyes met the sheriff’s.
“Yes sir, but I aim to get ’em, one way or another.”
“Hoss, I’m sorry son. I hope Adam will be all right, and we’ll find that little brother of yours too.”
Hoss nodded to Roy, then untied Chub’s reins from the hitching rail and led the exhausted horse across to the livery.
“Sam, I need a fresh mount right now. Take care of Chub for me will ya?”
In his haste to get going Hoss chose his own horse, took his saddle off Chub and moments later left town at a gallop.
An hour later he was at the Thompson farm. Relieved to see Paul Martin’s carriage in the yard, he tethered his horse and knocked loudly on the door. Mrs. Thompson opened it.
“Hello. Oh, it’s Mr.Cartwright isn’t it?”
Hoss took off his hat.
“Yes ma’am. Mrs. Thompson, I need the Doc. My brother’s in a real bad way, an if the Doc don’t get there real soon…”
“Come right on in. The doctor was just about to go.”
Hoss followed Mrs. Thompson into the living room where Paul Martin was chatting to a young boy with his leg in a splint.
“Doctor, Mr. Cartwright needs you, it’s an emergency.”
Mrs. Thompson picked up the doctor’s hat from the table and handed it to him.
“Hoss. What’s happened?”
“Doc, Adam’s near dead, you got to get out to the house real fast.”
Hoss took hold of the doctor’s black medical bag from the table and walked towards the door.
“Hoss, now hold on. Tell me what’s happened”
“No time Doc. Adam’s shot. Just get out there now, please.”
“All right. I’m coming. Now Johnny you remember what I told you,” the doctor said, taking his bag from Hoss. The boy nodded.
“Mrs. Thompson, I’ll be back out next week.”
“Thank you doctor. Mr. Cartwright, I do hope your brother will be all right.”
“Thank you ma’am. Real sorry I came bargin’ in like that.”
Mrs. Thompson smiled at him. Hoss followed the doctor outside. Dr. Martin climbed into his buggy and flicked the reins. Hoss mounted his horse and set off at a fast pace towards the Ponderosa ranch house, praying that they wouldn’t be too late.
When Ben arrived back home, Adam was still unconscious. He was a big man, and in his unconscious state was a dead weight. Even with Hop Sing’s help, it was a struggle for Ben to get his son up to his room. Once Adam was laying on his bed, Ben set about trying to help his son as best he could. With care he removed Adam’s wet clothing, talking reassuringly to him all the while. Hop Sing brought warm water, and together they soaked the shirt where the blood had congealed over the chest wound, hoping that fresh bleeding wouldn’t start. Ben cut along the shirtsleeves and the two men managed to roll Adam over on to his stomach. The movement caused the injured man to groan. Much as Ben hated to cause his son pain the sound gave him some hope. Adam was alive and hovering near consciousness. He had been so still and cold that Ben had begun to fear the worst. Once the shirt was soaked away from the wound on Adam’s back, Ben was able to pull it off completely and examine the rest of his son’s body. Deep bruising was forming down Adam’s left side and the area looked swollen. Ben feared that ribs were broken and could only hope that Adam’s lung was undamaged. Very carefully they shifted him on to his back and covered him with blankets and a quilt pulling them up to his chin, anxious to get some warmth into Adam’s body. Ben examined the wounds to Adam’s head. There was a small graze on his right temple. Bruising and swelling ran down the left side of his face and along the cheekbone which looked very nasty, and his left eye was so swollen that Ben doubted that Adam would be able to open it if he were awake.
While he was tending his son Ben had been able to keep his mind on the job at hand, but now that he had done all he could, he was filled with fear for the lives of both Adam and Joe. He sat at Adam’s bedside, praying for both of his sons. The wait for the doctor seemed interminable. Then just when Ben was beginning to think that maybe something had happened to Hoss too, he heard the sound of a carriage in the yard. Moments later the front door opened with a bang and hurrying footsteps sounded on the stairs. Hoss entered Adam’s room closely followed by Dr. Paul Martin.
“Paul, I thought you would never get here,” Ben said, fear and worry evident in his eyes.
The doctor gave Adam’s wounds a cursory look.
“Ben, I want to give Adam a complete examination, and I need to cleanse that bullet wound thoroughly. I would prefer it if you and Hoss waited downstairs.”
“No, I want to stay with him. Paul, it’s been hours since he was hurt.”
Hoss took his father by the arm, gently pulling him towards the door
“Come on Pa, let’s leave the Doc to do his work, nothing more you can do here. Sheriff’s on his way an I wanna to get the men together so’s we can go look for Little Joe.”
“Yes, all right.”
Ben gave his injured son a lingering look and followed Hoss out of the room quietly closing the door. Downstairs Ben sat down, then almost immediately stood up. He paced back and forth in front of the fireplace.
“Pa, Adam’ll be okay, and there ain’t no-one better than Doc Martin,” Hoss said, but his worried expression belied his words.
With a sigh Ben stopped his pacing and looked at Hoss.
“It’s not just that bullet wound. That’s bad enough, looks infected to me. He’s lost a lot of blood Hoss. He’s got bruises and swellings on his side and his face.”
“Yeah I know. Looks like someone hit him real hard don’t it.”
“Someone has beaten him. Why? Why, when he was shot, probably lying helpless? Why? Or maybe he was beaten first. Who would shoot a man so badly beaten?
Hoss was silent for a few moments.
“I promise you this Pa. I’ll find Little Joe and I’ll find the varmints who did this to Adam, and they’ll pay. I promise you they will.”
Ben sank down into his chair. He felt completely helpless. Two of his sons were in danger and he was doing nothing, nothing at all, to help them. Hoss’s voice broke into his thoughts.
At last Ben looked up.
“Has Adam come to at all? Has he said anything?”
“No, he just moaned when we were moving him.”
“Roy asked if Adam and Joe were having trouble with anyone? I can’t think of anyone. Can you?”
Ben shook his head.
“No. I’ve been wondering the same thing, but I can’t think of any reason for this.”
Ben rose from his chair and once more began pacing around the room. From outside came the sound of horses in the yard and the two men went out on to the porch. Sheriff Coffee and his deputy Johnny Murray were dismounting.
“Glad you’re still here Hoss. Ben! How’s Adam doing?”
Ben and Roy shook hands.
“He’s in a bad way Roy, Paul’s with him now.”
“I’m sorry, real sorry. I think a lot of Adam, you know that. I truly hope he will be all right.”
Ben gave a tight smile and nodded his acknowledgment of Roy’s concern.
“Ben, you got any idea who would have done this? Your boys had a run in with anyone recently?”
“No, none that I know of. If either of them were having any trouble they would have told us. What possible reason could anyone have for doing this?”
“Ben, I’ve been thinking on just that point on the way out here. It’s possible that someone is after money, holding Little Joe for ransom. After all, it’s no secret that you’re a wealthy man. I reckon it’s more than likely that you’ll get a note asking for money in exchange for Joe’s safe return.”
For a moment Ben considered Roy’s take on the situation.
“I don’t know Roy. If that is the case, then why shoot Adam? It doesn’t make sense.”
“Maybe to show they mean business.”
Hoss had been standing quietly, listening to the older men speak.
“Well if you’re aiming to sit around waiting for a note, I ain’t. I’m getting the men together and I’m gonna go look for Joe.”
“Well of course I’m not gonna to sit around and wait. Hoss, all I’m saying is they’ve taken Joe. Must be a reason for that. Seems to me that if you can’t think of any other, then it’s likely to be for money.”
Hoss looked at his father who shrugged his shoulders.
“Perhaps Roy is right, I just don’t know.”
The sheriff walked back to his horse.
“Let’s get out to the place where it happened and see if we can’t pick up some tracks. The rain’s stopped. It’s not been real heavy, so there might still be some signs. Come on Hoss let’s get going. Not too much daylight left.”
Hoss’s attention turned to a couple of ranch hands who rode into the yard, finished with their work for the day.
“Be right with ya sheriff. I’ll just let these fellas know what’s happened.”
Hoss hurried over to the bunkhouse where the men were climbing down from their horses. After a brief conversation, the men mounted up again and rode out.
“Okay Roy. They’ll round up the rest of the men and meet us down there.”
As Hoss climbed up on to his horse, Hop Sing came out of the barn leading a packhorse. He handed the lead rein to Hoss.
“Mr. Hoss, you find Li’l Joe. You need take food for trip. Men all get hungry. Don worry, Mr. Adam be okay.”
“Yeah, thanks Hop Sing. Look after my Pa will ya.”
After the men had left, Ben and Hop Sing went back inside, Hop Sing to the kitchen and Ben to the living room to resume his pacing and worrying, waiting for news of his boys.
Joe sat hunched in the saddle. He was cold. The light rain had soaked through his shirt and the cool breeze sent shivers through his body. He had lost all track of time and had no idea how long they had been travelling. The Wilsons pulled up and Joe felt the rope tying his feet being undone and then the rope tying his hands to the pommel, and he was dragged from the saddle. Although his hands were still tied together and the dirty cloth covered his eyes, he once more he took the chance to strike out at his captors. His legs were immediately kicked from under him and he felt a boot in his ribs.
“Any more of that kid an’ I’ll kill you right off, ya hear? Get him inside.”
Judd Wilson had been his attacker but it was Kyle Wilson who roughly grabbed him and pushed him ahead.
“Don’t mess with me boy or ya’ll get the same as I give ya big brother.”
Joe stumbled as he blindly tripped over a step. Yet again he was hauled to his feet. The bandana was snatched from his eyes and Joe blinked in the sudden light. He was in the doorway of a dilapidated wooden shack.
“Get in there.”
Judd Wilson shoved him from behind. The sparsely furnished room was dirty and smelled stale. Joe felt a rifle barrel poke into his back.
Joe walked through a second doorway, into small dim room.
Joe sat on the rickety straight back chair that was set in the centre of the room, and glared at his captors.
“I don’t know who you are, but you won’t get away with this.”
The old man grinned showing a mouth of brown rotting teeth.
“Well then, I’ll tell ya just who I am. I’m Judd Wilson, and these here are my boys, Kyle and the runt there, Newt. My remaining boys that is. My other boy is dead. Your Pa’s doin’. Sent him to prison. He died in that hell hole. Well now the mighty Ben Cartwright’s got a dead son, and soon he’ll have two dead sons.”
Joe said nothing, but continued to watch the man with distaste. His obvious contempt riled the man even further.
“What’s the matter little rich boy don’t ya like your new home? Not quite the Ponderosa is it, but probably better’n what my boy had.”
While his father was talking, Newt Wilson stood watching Joe with doleful eyes. Kyle Wilson went into the main room and returned with a bottle of whisky. He pulled out the cork with his teeth and took a long swig, then grinned inanely at Joe.
“We got ya now kid, we sure as hell got ya now. Easy money.”
“Shut up Kyle.”
Judd moved closer to Joe.
“There ain’t no way outta here boy,” he said waving the rifle in Joe’s face.
In a futile show of defiance, Joe leapt up from the chair and threw himself at Judd Wilson, knocking him to the ground, only to be struck across the head by Kyle, followed by another kick to the ribs as he sprawled on the floor.
Judd Wilson’s face turned purple with anger.
“You are sorely trying my patience boy!” he yelled.
Kyle Wilson grabbed hold of Joe’s hair pushing his face close to Joe’s, his stinking whisky breath pouring over Joe, making him gag.
“Let’s kill him now, I don’t see why you want to keep him alive?”
“Because, Kyle, he’s gonna suffer just like your brother did, an his old man is gonna know that he suffered, that’s why.”
“Seems like we’re takin’ risks we don’t have to. Kill the kid, get the money and let’s get outta here.”
“NO! I’m running this outfit and I’m telling you he’s gonna stay here an he’s gonna stay alive…for now. Now the both of ya GET OUT.”
He waved his rifle towards the door. Kyle let Joe’s head drop back to the floor and left. Newt slunk out after him. Judd turned back to look at Joe who was scrambling to his feet, then abruptly turned and left. The door was slammed shut and Joe could hear it being barred on the outside.
Joe closed his eyes for a moment, recovering from his rough treatment. Then his thoughts were of escape. His bound hands were a hindrance he needed to remove; he needed something to cut the ropes. If he was lucky, and if the Wilsons had been careless, there might be something lying around that he could use. As his eyes adjusted to the dim light he began to examine his surroundings. Apart from the rickety chair, there was a filthy mattress pushed into one corner of the room and a small wooden table. The one window was high up and boarded over on the outside letting in sparse light. The only door was the one through which he had entered. Joe sat down on the chair and began to twist and turn his hands and wrists in an attempt to loosen the rope, but succeeded only in making his wrists sore from the chafing. He cussed to himself, mad that his pocket knife was in his jacket pocket, and that was on the back of the wagon. He berated himself even more for the fact that he had removed his gun belt and allowed these poor excuses for men to take him, and kill Adam. He shook his head in an attempt to removed Adam’s face from his mind. But dwelling on his own foolishness wasn’t going to help him now and it couldn’t help poor Adam. He squeezed his eyes tight shut to prevent the tears that suddenly threatened.
Purposefully he turned his mind back to thoughts of escape. Surely there was something he could use to cut these ropes. In the dim light he scoured the room for some old tool or something sharp that would cut through the bindings, but the room appeared to be bare and eventually he gave up. Wilson’s taunt of “there ain’t now way outta here boy” rang in his ears. His ribs were hurting and he felt sick again. He couldn’t bring himself to lay down on the filthy mattress which looked like it would be home to lice and fleas. Instead he dragged the chair close to the table and sat down. Putting his arms on the table top he rested his head on the pillow they formed. As he lay there the vision of Adam lying on ground came back into his mind and this time he couldn’t make it go away. Adam was dead and soon he would be too. What of his father, what would become of him and Hoss too? How could they bear all of this? While Joe sat in the darkness that had descended silent tears ran down his face. He rubbed them away on his arms. He felt utterly desolate. Finally sleep came and with it relief from his torment.
Ben sat in his chair staring into the fire, lost in thought. He gave a start when a hand was laid on his shoulder.
“Paul! How’s he doing?”
Ben stood up looking anxiously at the doctor.
“Ben, let’s sit down. Do you think that Hop Sing has any fresh coffee? This has been a long day.”
Ben called to Hop Sing who immediately brought in the coffee he had ready and waiting. While Hop Sing poured the beverage, Ben could hardly contain himself.
Paul Martin took a drink then with precise care he replaced the cup on to its saucer.
“Ben, I’m going to speak plain to you. Adam’s condition is serious. The bullet went straight through as you know, and has missed his lung thank goodness. I’ve cleaned the wound but infection could already have set in. He has a couple of cracked ribs, along with some bad bruising down his side. I’m hoping that there is no serious internal injury. The wounds to his head are worrying. The one on his right temple was probably caused when he fell. I am assuming that he was on his horse when he was shot, the bullet wound indicates that whoever shot him was shooting upwards at an angle. It’s slightly lower down in his chest, the exit wound in his back is higher up. So this temple wound was probably caused when he hit the ground, and I’m concerned about concussion. The bruising to his face and eye, and to his ribs, is indicative of a beating. It looks to me as though Adam was viciously kicked as he lay on the ground. There may well be broken bones in his face, cheek bone or jaw.”
Ben had kept his eyes firmly fixed on the doctor while he was speaking. He was trying to take in all Paul was telling him; waiting for Paul to tell him that in spite of all of this, Adam would be fine.
“But he will be all right won’t he?”
“Ben I just don’t know. I wish I could say he will be, but I just don’t know.”
Ben began to feel panicky again. The same feeling of shock that he had experienced when he had discovered Adam in the meadow. Paul’s voice was beginning to sound far away.
“Infection can be a killer Ben, you know that.”
Ben took a deep breath and braced himself. He had to know.
“You’re saying he might …”
Ben stopped. He couldn’t bring himself to speak of Adam’s possible death, instead he pleaded with his eyes for the doctor to allay his fears.
“Ben, Adam might die. Or he might recover but have permanent damage to his brain. Or he might make a complete recovery. What I am saying is, that at this stage, I have no way of knowing. And…”
Ben waited for Paul to continue.
“A man as badly injured as Adam, laying out there in the cold and wet for so long.”
The doctor shook his head.
Ben’s gaze returned to the flames while he contemplated Paul’s words.
“He’s not going to die. Not my Adam. He’s a fighter, a survivor. He’ll be all right.”
“I hope so Ben. He’s a strong man, let’s hope he’s strong enough. You know that I’ll do everything I can. Any infection that might already have got into his bloodstream Adam will have to fight himself. I can treat the wounds and give him pain relief. More than that, well we’ll just have to wait and see. Chances are he’ll be fine. We’ll know more when he comes round. He has a slight fever at the moment, which is to be expected. It will likely get much worse. I’ll stay the night and keep a close watch on him.”
The men sat in silence for a few minutes, Paul drinking his coffee.
“Ben, there was no point in my telling you Adam was fine, when he obviously isn’t. But now that I have told you the bad news, we have to be positive.”
He paused for a moment.
“Although Adam appears to be unconscious, it is possible that he is aware of what is going on around him. I think if you talk to him, tell him he is doing fine, just let him know that you are close, it might help, give him something to hold on to. He needs to fight not give up, he needs encouragement.”
Ben sat for a while deep in thought before speaking.
“I can’t lose two of my boys. Adam maybe dying; and Joseph missing, maybe dead. I can’t just sit here and do nothing. If you are staying with Adam, then maybe I should go search for Joe? Yes, that’s what I must do, go find Joe.”
Ben stood up and took a couple of steps towards the door.
“Come on now Ben. Hoss, Roy and the others are doing everything they can to find Little Joe. You know that. Nothing more you can do, you’d just be one more man. I’ve just told you, you need to be here with Adam.”
“But I can’t do anything for Adam. I can help Little Joe. I can search for him.”
“Ben, listen to me. Adam is teetering on the edge of an abyss. If you are not there, if there’s nothing for him to hold on to, he may just feel it’s not worth the effort. He might just let himself go.”
Paul’s words struck home and Ben walked back to the fireplace.
“Just feel so helpless. A father should be able to help his children when they are in trouble.”
“You can help. You can help Adam. Just because his eyes are closed it doesn’t necessarily mean he doesn’t know you’re there. Encourage him. Talk to him positively. Believe me it will help.”
Ben looked at the doctor’s earnest face, then nodded.
“You’re right. I just can’t think straight. Joe will be back and like you said, Adam is a strong young man, he won’t give up either, he’ll be just fine. I’m going back up to sit with him now.”
“Good, I’ll just have a little more coffee then I’ll be up.”
Hoss led Sheriff Coffee and his deputy to the pasture where Joe and Adam should have been working. Carefully they looked around for signs of what had happened. Despite the rain that had fallen they were able to pick out tracks on the ground.
“See here Roy, this is where the horses milled around. Kinda difficult to tell how many. And look at these footprints.”
“Well, I gotta agree with ya Hoss. Two maybe three men I’d say.”
Ponderosa ranch hands began arriving in the meadow. Hoss explained to the first group what had happened. He left one man to wait for the rest of the hands with instructions to follow on when everyone had arrived. Hoss, Roy and the rest of the men moved out straight away to begin the search for Little Joe Cartwright.
The trail was easy to follow and Hoss felt confident that it was only a matter of time before they caught up with the kidnappers. But his hopes were thwarted when the tracks suddenly veered off on to stony ground and were lost. Roy pulled up his horse and the men gathered round.
“Okay everyone, dismount and rest your horses.”
After a long day on the range the men were ready to take the opportunity to stretch stiff and aching limbs. It was natural too for them to discuss the shooting of their boss Adam Cartwright and the disappearance of Little Joe. The general consensus seemed to be that the kidnappers were after money and they were going to have a devil of a time finding them in these rocky hills. Roy went over to Hoss who was searching the ground, desperately looking for a sign of some kind to indicate the direction that the men had taken.
“Hoss when the remainder of your men arrive, I’m going to split them into small groups, each one taking a different section. We’ll meet back at nightfall and see if anyone has come up with anything.”
“And what if we don’t find anything Roy?”
“Now you know there’s nothing we can do in the dark, we’ll start out again at first light.”
“Hoss why don’t you go back home, see if your Pa’s heard anything. Give you a chance to see how Adam’s doing. Meet us in the morning.”
Hoss shook his head, reluctant to leave the search.
“Come on now Hoss, there’s scarcely more than an hour’s daylight left. Nothin’ we can do in the dark. Even with torches we wouldn’t be able to pick up a trail, all we would do would be to let those kidnappers know where we was. But if they’ve communicated with your Pa in any way, I sure would like to know about it.”
“All right Roy. Maybe that’s not such a bad idea at that. I’ll go let Charlie know what’s happening.”
Hoss found the foreman chatting with a couple of the hands, and Hoss took him to one side.
“Charlie, I’m gonna go back home. See how Adam’s doing and if Pa’s had any note or anything. Roy plans on getting started again when the rest of the hands catch up. Keep em at it until its dark will ya Charlie? We don’t know how much time we got.”
“We’ll stick at it, don’t you go fretting now Hoss, we’re gonna find Little Joe. Knowing that kid the way I do he won’t just be sittin’ around either, he’ll be figuring a way to escape.”
“Yeah Charlie, that’s another worry. Just hope he don’t do nothin’ foolish and get himself killed.”
“Young Joe’s a smart kid. He’ll be okay. You’d best get going Hoss. Sure hope Adam’s doing okay. We’ll see ya tomorrow. Tell your Pa we won’t give up ’til we find Little Joe.”
With the worrying thought of Little Joe trying to escape, Hoss mounted up for the ride home.
Joe stirred and became aware of shouting coming from the other side of the door. Judd and Kyle Wilson were arguing again. He got up and sat on the floor, his back against the door, straining to hear what was being said.
“You crazy old man. Revenge, revenge. That’s all you think about. Well I want the money. I say we kill the kid now, we get the money off Cartwright and light out.”
“I said NO, not yet. We don’t kill the kid yet, we let him suffer first just like Hank did all those years locked up.”
“Hank. That’s all you ever talk about. Hank’s gone, old man. We gotta look out for ourselves. We get that money from Cartwright and we got it made.”
Then Joe recognised Newt’s voice.
“You already killed one, you don’t need to kill this one, just get the money and go.”
Kyle was shouting again.
“As well as being yella ya just plain stupid. We gotta kill him ‘cos he knows who we are. You’re in this just like us, and if the law catches up with us you’ll hang same as us.”
“SHUT UP the both of ya. Kyle go look to the horses. Newt, rustle up some grub.”
Joe heard the outer door slam and all was quiet again. He pushed himself upright then walked up and down, exercising legs that had grown stiff while he had slept on the chair. There was no way he was going to get through the barred door, that much was clear. He looked again at the window. It was high, the boards looked solid. Even if he managed to break the glass quietly enough not to be heard, he was sure he would never dislodge the boards. He returned to his seat anxious to figure a way out. He stared longingly at the window but dismissed it as an escape route. It was going to have to be the door, and he was going to have to wait until one of them opened it. He figured someone was bound to come in to check on him at some point. All he had to do was overpower whoever it was and get their gun. Once he had a gun he could handle the others. He really needed either Kyle or the old man to be out of the shack. He didn’t think he needed to worry too much about Newt. Before he could do anything else though, he had to get his hands free. The day was drawing to a close and he could see very little inside the room, but he could feel. Joe got up and began to walk round the small room, moving his hands over the walls, searching with his finger tips…for what? He didn’t know, but he couldn’t just sit and await his fate.
A scraping noise sounded from the other side of the door as the bar was moved. Joe quickly sat back down at the table. The door opened to reveal Kyle Wilson, gun in hand, and Newt carrying a plate and mug. Kyle waved his gun at Joe.
“Get to the back of the room Cartwright.”
Slowly Joe stood and backed up.
“Right up against the wall.”
Joe moved further away, all the time keeping his eyes on Kyle and his gun. Newt placed the plate and mug on the table then left.
“That’s ya supper Cartwright, though to me seems like a waste of good grub.”
Kyle backed out of the room, and closed the door. Joe heard the bar being put back in place. He walked over to the table. It was difficult to make out what was on the plate but the smell turned his stomach. Joe couldn’t face eating the sloppy mess that Kyle Wilson had referred to as good grub. Even the spoon was of no use to him. It was made from wood. But he was thirsty and greedily drank down the mug of water.
He resumed his search of the room, first crawling on the floor searching for anything, then once more walking round the room moving his hands over the wall. He was ready to give up when suddenly there it was. A spike firmly embedded into the wall at head height. Joe silently thanked whomever it was who had seen fit to hang something on the wall. He hooked his hands over the spike and began moving them back and forth so that the rope rubbed on the nail. He was tired, his body ached from the beatings he had taken, his arms ached from the position he had to hold them in, but he kept on rubbing and rubbing. Now he had hope. He would escape and he would see the Wilsons pay for killing his brother. As he worked methodically he couldn’t keep his thoughts off Adam.
Hope he knew how much I loved him. Too late to tell him now.
Memories came flooding into Joe’s mind. How Adam always looked after him, got him out of trouble more times than he could recall. Joe smiled to himself. Facing Adam sometimes was as bad as facing up to Pa. He sure could get angry when he had a mind to. But no matter what, Joe knew he could always trust Adam. Adam always knew what to do, always tried to do the right thing. That time when Vannie Johnson was murdered. They’d both been coerced into joining the posse that turned into a lynch mob. But even after the last remaining suspect had admitted the murder Adam wouldn’t hand him over to the mob. Joe had suggested that maybe they should but Adam wouldn’t budge. The man would hang, but it would be done legally. Adam had been right of course. The man went back for trial.
Well Adam, for you I’ll do this legally – if I can.
Joe had to take frequent rests, but he kept going back to the spike and eventually his industry paid off. First one strand of the rope snapped, then another and then Joe felt the rest of the strands loosen, and the rope was off. He worked his hands and wrists, getting the circulation back into them, then with hope in his heart he returned to the table and chair to try to sleep for the few hours. Come morning he would escape and Kyle Wilson would hang for murder.
Despite the fading light Hoss had a relatively easy ride home. By the time it was difficult to see he had reached the ranch road, and arrived home a little after ten o’clock. He took care of his horse and then made his way to the house to be greeted at the door by Hop Sing, anxious for news.
“You find Lil Joe?”
“Not yet Hop Sing, but we will. How’s Adam doing?”
Hop Sing shook his head.
“Mr. Adam vely sick”, he said quietly and went back towards the kitchen.
“Hop Sing fix food, you tell Mr. Cartlight must eat.”
Hoss made his way upstairs and quietly entered Adam’s room. Adam lay unconscious on the bed, bandages covering almost all of his chest and shoulder. Hoss was horrified by the sight of his brother’s face battered. Adam’s left eye looked to be even more swollen and blackened, and dark bruising and swelling ran down the entire left side of his face. He was moaning and moving his head restlessly. The doctor was listening to Adam’s chest with a stethoscope and his father was rinsing a cloth in a bowl of water in which there stood a large chunk of ice. Both men had looked toward the door when Hoss entered.
“Hoss?” Ben asked expectantly.
Hoss drew his eyes from his brother’s face and shook his head.
“No news Pa. How’s Adam doing?”
Ben put down the cloth and walked over to Hoss and took hold of an arm leading him out of the room and closing the door behind him.
“Not so good Hoss. Paul thinks it’s possible that he may be able to hear us so best not to talk in there.”
“Just how bad is he? He’s gonna’ make it ain’t he?”
“I don’t know Hoss, I just don’t know.”
Ben paused for a moment.
“Is there no sign of Joe?”
Hop Sing appeared at the top of the stairs.
“Food all ready. Mr. Hoss, Mr.Cartlight, you come eat. Look after sons better if you eat.”
“Hop Sing’s right . Come on Pa.”
Hoss was hungrier than he had realised and while he ate he filled Ben in on what had taken place.
“We’ll find him tomorrow for sure. What about Adam?”
Ben took a deep breath.
“Well there’s infection in the bullet wound, but not too much. Paul seems confident he can keep it under control. But he’s worried there may be damage to Adam’s brain. And he’d been lying out there in the rain…”
Ben’s voice trailed off and he bowed his head into his hands.
“There’s nothing more to do but wait and see. That’s the terrible thing Hoss. I can’t help him. Just have to wait, and pray that God won’t take him.”
“Pa, why don’t you get some rest, I’ll stay with Adam for a while. If the Doc gets worried I’ll come for ya.”
Ben roused himself.
“No Hoss, you’re the one who needs to rest. You’ve a long day ahead of you and you’ll cope better with some sleep.”
Hoss looked in on Adam once more, then went to bed to catch a few hours sleep if he could. Ben went back to keep vigil at the bedside of his oldest son. While Paul Martin dozed in an easy chair, Ben sat holding Adam’s hand, cooling his brow with iced water and answering his incoherent mutterings with gentle words of encouragement. Ben’s thoughts wandered between Adam and Joe. What if he never saw his youngest boy again? Ben felt as though his heart would break from the worry and anguish that was eating away at him.
“Please Lord, don’t take my boys from me,” he whispered.
“Adam. I’m here son, I’m right here.”
Adam’s eyes remained closed. He licked his lips, which were dry and puffy, and vaguely reached for Ben with his hand. Ben picked up a glass of water and raising his son’s head from the pillow, he held it to Adam’s lips. As Adam drank he began to cough and splutter. By the time the coughing fit was over, he was gasping for breath. Paul Martin stirred himself and came to Adam’s side.
“Easy Adam, just try to relax, you’ll be fine.”
Gradually Adam calmed and his breathing became easier.
“He’s not quite so warm Ben, I think he’s getting the better of this infection already.”
Adam’s right eye opened slightly and his hand instinctively went up to his left eye, but was caught by Paul.
“Adam you eye is swollen shut, but it will be fine,” the Doctor explained. “Try not to touch it. I know you’re hurting. I’ll give you some medicine for the pain, you just try to lie still.”
Adam’s breathing was ragged and he looked awful, but he was awake. A great feeling of relief surged through Ben. Gently he squeezed Adam’s hand.
“Pa? What’s… wrong?” Adam whispered.
“You’ve been shot Adam, and beaten, but you’re doing just fine. You’re at home, everything is going to be all right.”
Adam closed his eyes
As much as he hated to do it, Ben couldn’t let Adam go to sleep. He needed to find out about Joe. He gently shook Adam’s arm.
Adam struggled to open his eyes.
“Adam, do you remember what happened? Do you remember anything? Do you remember what happened to Joe”
Adam’s eyes closed again and this time Ben couldn’t rouse him.
“He’ll wake up again Ben.”
Paul was at Ben’s side. He placed a reassuring hand on his friend’s shoulder.
“Ben, he’s woken up, he’s talking and he’s making sense. All good signs. Next time he wakes maybe he will be able to tell you something. In the meantime be thankful that he’s making progress.”
Ben looked up at the doctor and smiled weakly.
“I am Paul, believe me I am.”
Half an hour later Adam woke again
Once again Ben held the glass to his son’s lips allowing Adam to quench his parched mouth and throat. Then he gently bathed Adam’s eyes and face with a cool cloth.
“You’ve been shot.”
“I don’t know. Don’t you remember what happened?”
Ben was unsure how much he should tell Adam, but for Joe’s sake he had to question him.
“Adam, you and Joe were going to mend fences, do you remember that?”
Adam looked blankly at his father, his breathing shallow.
“You were riding Sport. Do you remember why you were riding. Why weren’t you in the wagon with Joe? Do you remember?”
It took so long for Adam to reply that Ben thought he hadn’t heard or understood. Adam licked his lips then spoke so quietly that Ben had to strain to hear his voice.
Ben thought for a moment.
“Adam, were you tracking that cougar, is that what you were doing?”
Adam sighed. “Cougar…pasture…meeting Joe.”
Adam seemed to drift off but then he was speaking again.
“Pa… where’s…Joe? Joe…shot? Is Joe …all right?”
Adam’s breathing became rapid and he began to cough, holding on to his chest with his hand. Before Ben could answer Paul spoke.
“Adam, you have been badly hurt, and you need to rest. Now I want you to try to take some steady breaths.”
When the coughing had subsided Adam pleaded with Ben.
“Pa… tell me… where is Joe?”
“I don’t know son, we found you shot and no sign of Joe. I had hoped you might be able to tell us something.”
Adam closed his eyes.
“Can’t…remember. Pa…you…find him…go find Joe.”
“It’s all right Adam. There are a lot of men out looking for Joe, they’ll find him. Hoss has been looking. He’s just getting some rest, the he’ll go again. Hoss will find Joe.”
Paul mixed laudanum with some water.
“Drink this Adam.”
Adam complied and in a few minutes was sleeping again, his breathing noisy but easier. But as the night wore on Adam’s fever rose again. He tossed his head, muttered and moaned, his legs moving restlessly, and when he spoke he made no sense at all. Every hour or so Hop Sing would bring fresh ice, hacked from the blocks stored in the ice house. Ben laboured to keep his son cool with cloths soaked in the iced water and Paul Martin administered more laudanum. Ben’s relief of the evening when Adam had woken had given way to fear as he watched his son battle through the long night. Then at dawn Adam’s breathing began to give the doctor greater cause for concern. Outside the birds were beginning their dawn chorus, singing in the new day. Inside all Ben could hear was the shallow rasping sound of his son fighting for each breath. Dr. Martin had his stethoscope on Adam’s chest, a worried expression on his face.
“Ben, we need pillows, lots of them. I want to get Adam sitting upright.”
Reluctantly Ben let go of his boy’s hand and left the room in search of the required pillows. On the landing Hoss was making his way to Adam’s room.
“Pa. How’s he doing?”
Ben shook his head. “He’s had a bad night, fever’s been high. Now his breathing is poor. I’m just going to get some pillows so Paul can prop him up.”
“I’ll get the pillows, you go back in.”
“All right. Get plenty Hoss.”
“Hoss is bringing them,” Ben said to the doctor when he returned to Adam’s room.
“Good. Ben help me to sit him up. I want to put my stethoscope to his back.”
Between them they gently pulled Adam upright and Ben cradled his grown son on his shoulder while the doctor moved his stethoscope over Adam’s back, listening intently. Ben felt the searing heat that emanated from his son’s fever ridden body.
Hoss came into the room with pillows gathered from the other bedrooms and he placed them against the headboard of the bed. Being careful of ribs and shoulder, Hoss gently, pulled Adam up the bed so that he rested upright against the soft mound. When at last his head was laid back, Adam’s eyes were open. He looked around but seemed not to focus, labouring to draw breath in short shallow gulps. He began coughing. Once again his right hand clutched at his left side.
The doctor spoke in soothing tones. “Adam, try to relax. Try to take steady breaths. Slow down.”
But Adam continued to gasp and cough. Not until the coughing fit had ceased did his breathing become more regular. Calm once more, Adam’s troubled eyes met his father’s. Ben took Adam’s hand in his own.
“It’s all right Adam. You’re going to be all right.”
Adam shook his head. “What’s…wrong …with me?”
Quietly Ben gave his son the barest of details, unwilling to alarm him and start the coughing off again, yet at the same time still hoping that Adam would tell him what had happened to Little Joe.
“You were shot. But the bullet was high and passed right through, just below your shoulder. You’re going to be fine.”
Adam closed his eyes and seemed to relax.
“Adam, do you remember anything about it?”
Adam replied without opening his eyes. His voice sounded weak and tired.
The doctor touched Ben’s arm.
“Let him sleep Ben, while his breathing is easier.”
Ben nodded his agreement to the doctor.
“Pa, if you don’t need me here, I’m going to head on out again.”
“Hoss, first you eat something hot. I’ll come down stairs with you.”
In the dining room the table was laid for breakfast, hot coffee in the pot ready for pouring. Hop Sing appeared with two plates of hot food.
“You eat”, he said to Ben. “Need food, stay strong. Help Mr. Adam and Lil Joe.”
“Thank you Hop Sing. We’ll eat. The doctor will be down shortly.”
After the quiet meal, Hoss was ready to leave. As he put on his holster he cast a sideways look at his father.
“Pa? You gonna be all right?”
“I’ll be fine Hoss. Don’t you worry about me.”
Hoss’s worried eyes looked towards the staircase.
“Hoss, Paul and I will take the best care of Adam that we can. I want you to concentrate on finding Little Joe.”
“I’ll find him Pa. I’ll bring him back home.”
Hoss had just stepped out into the yard when Hop Sing let out a shout. He was stood at the kitchen door waving a piece of paper.
“Mr. Hoss, Mr. Cartlight.”
“What is it Hop Sing? What’s all the commotion?” Ben asked the cook who had rushed over to him.
Hop Sing pushed a scrap of paper at Ben.
“Mr. Cartlight. Find on kitchen door!”
Ben took the paper and quickly read the scrawled message..
“Looks like Roy was right after all – it’s a ransom note just as he predicted.”
Hoss peered over his father’s shoulder to read the note.
Cartrite got ya boy loked up.
Leve 50000 dollas in the sherly
mine at noon or the kids ded.
NO LAW NO GUNS
“Dad blamed kidnappers been right up to the house while I was asleep. Should have been outside watching for ’em,” Hoss said as his father re-read the note.
“Fifty thousand dollars, we don’t have that kind of cash. I’ll have to go to town, see Ira at the bank.”
“Pa, you reckon Joe’s at the mine?”
“I don’t know Hoss, maybe not. We’ll have to play along with them though. You go back to Roy, tell him what’s happened. Don’t let them stop searching. You and Roy meet me later at the mine and, when you get there, mind you keep out of sight. Don’t want anything going wrong.”
“Nothings gonna go wrong Pa. We’ll get Little Joe, an we’ll get them for what they’ve done to Adam.”
After Hoss had left, Ben hurried back upstairs. Adam was still sleeping so Ben asked Paul to come for some breakfast. After checking on his patient and being satisfied with his condition, Paul joined Ben and they made their way downstairs.
“Where’s Hoss? Has he gone already?”
“Yes. He’s gone back to the search party. Paul, this morning Hop Sing found this note pinned to the kitchen door.”
Ben handed the paper to Paul as the two men sat down. Paul Martin quickly scanned the badly written note.
“You mean they had the bald faced cheek to come here in the night? Why didn’t we hear them?”
“Too tired I suppose.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“I’m going into town, talk Ira Johnson at the bank into giving me the money, then I’m going to the Shirley mine. I’m hoping you’ll stay with Adam?”
“Yes I can stay with Adam. But is this the right thing to do, give them what they want? I hate to say this Ben, but what’s to stop them killing Little Joe once they have their hands on the money?”
“I know Paul, that’s worrying me too. But I’ve got to play along with them, at least for the time being. I just hope that Hoss can find Little Joe before noon.”
Before leaving for town, Ben went up to see Adam.
“I’m going out for a little while Adam. I’ll be back soon,” he whispered, not really wanting to wake his son, but unable to leave without speaking to him.
Adam opened his eyes.
“Pa…where’s Joe… is he all right?”
“Hoss hasn’t found him yet Adam, but he will.”
“Is he missing? Where is he?”
“Adam, don’t worry. Joe will be fine.”
“Why is Hoss …looking for him? What’s happened?”
Adam was getting agitated and started coughing again. Paul had entered the room in time to hear this last question of Adam’s and to see the consternation on Ben’s face. Ben spoke to the doctor in hushed tones.
“I’ve explained to him what’s happened. Probably three or four times.”
“Ben, he’s just confused. He’ll be all right. You do what you have to, leave Adam to me.”
Ben turned back to his son.
“Adam, rest easy son, everything is going to be fine. I’ll be back soon.”
Adam closed his eyes and relaxed, the coughing over.
Joe had slept badly and was awake long before dawn. His night had been filled with visions of Adam falling from his horse, his body covered in blood while Kyle Wilson kicked him and kicked him unmercifully. And in his dream Joe could do nothing to help. He screamed Adam’s name but there was no sound, he ran and ran but got no nearer. He had woken with a start. It was still dark, and he remembered thinking he had heard horses during the night. He had listened intently, but all had been quiet. Maybe it had just been part of the nightmare. But yesterday the nightmare had been real. Adam was dead. Grief threatened to overwhelm him.
Stop it. Stop it. Won’t help Adam or me. Stay alert. Stay calm. Adam would be calm. He wouldn’t panic. That’s what I’ve got to do, be calm, be ready.
Joe took a deep breath and steadied himself. Noises from the other room banished Adam’s face and brought Joe back to the present. Sounds of coughing and cursing as the men woke up. Then Joe heard the outside door slam. One of them had left the shack, but which one? He needed someone to come in now whilst there were only two in the shack, and he needed that person to be alone, or he would surely be shot. There was more coughing and a raised voice. Sounded like the father, and Joe could only hope that the man who had left had been Kyle. Quietly he moved the table to the far end of the tiny room to give himself ample room to swing the chair, and positioned himself by the door. Joe grasped the back of the chair, his only available weapon, and was poised, ready to hurl it at the first man to come through the door.
After what seemed like an eternity the door opened. Without waiting to see who was coming through, Joe swung the chair putting all his weight behind it, and hit Judd Wilson squarely in the face and chest sending him sprawling into the outer room. Joe was on him in a flash, knocking the gun from his hand. The two men rolled on the floor fighting furiously, Wilson screaming at Newt to do something. Joe’s fury at the man he was fighting unleashed a hidden strength and he beat relentlessly at the older man. Then without warning bright lights exploded in front of his eyes, and he lost his grip on Wilson. Judd Wilson pushed Joe off, staggered to his feet and lunged at Newt, pushing him against the wall. Joe shook his head trying to clear his mind, relieved that for the moment Judd Wilson seemed more interested in admonishing his son, than in fighting him.
The two men were positioned between Joe and the door, and he shrank back against the wall, aiming to inch his way around to the door while Wilson was otherwise engaged. Newt began to fight against his father, pushing him away, while Judd Wilson was screaming at his son, demanding to know why it had taken him so long to come to his rescue. He punched Newt in the stomach sending the boy reeling across the room and on to the floor. As he hit the ground Newt’s hand fell on to his father’s fallen gun. Judd lurched towards his son, then spying the gun in Newt’s hand he stopped himself.
“Give me that you coward,” he yelled.
Newt held the gun in a shaky hand pointing it towards his father. Judd stared at the boy then laughed as he looked into Newt’s panic-stricken eyes.
“You wouldn’t shoot your old man, you haven’t got the nerve,” he sneered, “NOW YOU HAND ME THAT GUN.”
He made a move towards Newt. Newt’s shaky finder tightened on the trigger and the blast sent his father reeling back, blood pumping from the gaping hole in his chest. Judd slammed against the wall, a look of utter disbelief on his face, then fell sideways on to the floor. Newt stared for a moment, then dropped the gun and stumbled outside.
For a moment Joe was rooted to the spot, hardly able to comprehend what had just taken place. Judd Wilson lay slumped on the floor, his dirty shirt stained red, the man’s blank staring eyes seemed to be looking straight at him. Joe stared back at the body. He felt cold inside. A man was dead, but he felt no regret, just relief. Now there were only two. He bent down to pick up the discarded gun, the action causing pain to rush through his head making him giddy. He felt the back of his head. A lump was rapidly rising where Newt had clobbered him with something. Once the dizziness had passed, he checked the gun barrel for ammunition and then pushed into his belt as made his way to the door. Carefully he poked his head outside. There was no one in sight. With stealth Joe made his way round the back of the shack. The last thing he wanted to do was surprise Newt. After all, the boy had just gunned down his own father. Joe figured that if he startled him he could well get the same treatment. The place seemed deserted, and Joe allowed himself to relax just a little and catch his breath. He racked his brain, trying to remember everything he had heard the outlaws say. They had talked about getting money. Kyle had wanted to kill him and get the money.
A ransom. Would Pa pay?
He hoped not, but if Pa thought that it would save his son’s life he would. Then another terrifying thought entered Joe’s mind. What if Pa gave them the money? They would kill Pa just as they had killed Adam, just as they had killed their own father. He couldn’t save Adam but he had to save Pa. He had to get home, warn Pa. He couldn’t let them kill Pa, not Pa. Fear for his father began to fill Joe’s mind. Desperately he looked around. Where was he? How could he warn Pa. He couldn’t think. Blind panic threatened to overwhelm him and he felt light-headed again.
Stop it. Stop it. Now be calm, think, be calm.
He took some deep breaths and felt better. An old rain barrel stood at the end of the shack. He reached into the tub with cupped hands and splashed water on his face and bathed the lump on the back of his head. It revived him and he felt better.
Now think. Check their trail. It’s not so rocky here, should be able to see which direction they went in at least. Follow their trail.
Joe was relieved to find two horses in the corral. Newt hadn’t had the foresight to run them off. With ease Joe soon had one caught up and saddled. Leading the horse, he examined the ground around the shack, slowly and carefully moving away in an ever-widening circle. There was only one clear trail leading in a southerly direction, but there was also one set of horse prints heading east. Joe figured that these were evidence of Newt’s hasty departure. He mounted and followed the southerly trail.
Ben had ridden into Virginia City as fast as he had dared. When at last he arrived at the bank he was dishevelled and sweaty. Buck was lathered and breathing hard. Ben almost threw himself from the saddle and raced up the steps to the bank. He pounded on the door. When there was no response he pounded harder, and shouted to anyone who might be inside.
“It’s Ben Cartwright, open up, please open up.”
He was about to start pounding again when he heard locks being drawn, and the door was opened by the manager, Ira Johnson.
“For goodness sake Ben, I thought we were about to be robbed.”
There was no preamble from Ben.
“Ira, I need fifty thousand dollars and I need it right now, in cash.”
Ben grabbed Ira’s arm pulling him towards the back of the bank where the safe stood.
“All right Ben, all right.”
“Ira, I’ll pay you back, I’ll mortgage the Ponderosa, just give me the money will you.”
Ira was already getting a money sack.
“Ben I know what happened to Adam and Little Joe. I assume you’ve had a ransom note?”
As Ben watched Ira open the safe he sank exhausted into a nearby chair.
“Yes, Yes. I don’t know what to do. If I give them the money they will more than likely kill Little Joe, but if I don’t have the money, then I know they will kill him. I have to play along. Hope that Hoss and Roy will find Joe before it’s too late.”
“Well you have the money Ben. I can’t say that I like the idea of giving the townspeople’s money to crooks, but I trust you Ben, and I know you’re good for it. Just be careful.”
Ira had counted the money into the bag and closed the safe again. He handed the sack to Ben.
“Though I have to agree that your only chance of getting Little Joe back alive is for him to be found before you hand over the money.”
He shook Ben’s hand.
“Thanks Ira, I won’t forget this.”
Ben left the bank, mounted Buck and headed for the Shirley mine.
Joe knew that the trail he was following headed in the general direction of Virginia City and the Ponderosa. He forced himself to ride steadily. Fear was pushing him to speed up, to fly to his father’s aid, but common sense told him he must follow the tracks carefully. After only an hour stony ground swallowed up all visible signs. Joe stood in the stirrups looking carefully at the lay of the land. He decided to continue to travel in the same general direction. Half an hour later he had the tracks again and soon they veered off at a tangent from the faint trail he was following. Up in the distance was a tree, its trunk split in two and blackened by a lightning strike. At last Joe knew where he was and he urged his horse on at a faster pace. Now he knew exactly where he was going. The tracks joined an old trail which led to the long-deserted Shirley Mine. He rode at a loping gallop, ignoring the aches and pains brought on by the jarring motion of the horse as it travelled over the uneven ground.
When he judged that he was close to the mine, he reined in his horse and once more rode with care, keeping behind rocks and trees as much as possible. Kyle would have no notion that he was being followed, but nonetheless Joe took great pains to remain out of sight. About a hundred yards from the mine entrance Little Joe tethered his horse and proceeded on foot, keeping low and sprinting between rocks. He could see Kyle’s horse tied to a tree, and his heart leapt to his throat when he spotted Buck tethered on the far side of the entrance. The horse was alone. Joe prayed that Hoss was hidden somewhere nearby. He couldn’t count on it though; his father could well be on his own, and probably unarmed too. He studied the scene. It was too quiet. The two men must be inside the mine. Joe crept forward, checked the gun tucked into his belt, and then slowly he moved to the mine entrance, straining to hear any noise coming from inside. He could just make out the murmur of a voice from deep within, but it was too indistinct to tell whose it was. He flattened himself against the tunnel wall and inched his way forward. It was dark and it took a few minutes for his eyes to become accustomed to the dimness. As he gradually moved nearer he heard the voices more clearly. His father arguing with Kyle. Joe slipped the gun from his belt and moved closer.
“I’ll ask you one more time old man. Where’s the money?”
Joe heard the click of a pistol being cocked, then his father’s voice.
“If you kill me, you’ll never get your money will you?”
“Maybe I’ll just cripple you Cartwright.”
“Look, just bring my son, so I know he’s all right, and then I’ll give you the money.”
“He’s all right. I already told ya that.”
“Why would I believe you?”
“Because I told ya so. If you don’t hand over the money pronto, I swear he’ll be dead. If you want to see the kid again you ain’t got no choice. Hand it over.”
Joe spoke out of the darkness.
“That’s just where you’re wrong Kyle. You’re the one with no choice.”
Hearing Joe’s voice, Kyle swung round firing his gun blindly. Joe felt a stab of pain and his gun fell from his hand. Too dark to see where it lay, Joe leapt at Kyle and the two tumbled to the ground. They struggled, Kyle desperately trying to put his gun to Joe’s head while Joe grasped the man’s wrist with an iron grip. Kyle’s free arm locked round Joe’s neck while Joe frantically pulled at it. Kyle was the bigger of the two and he managed to get to his knees, but Joe doggedly hung on, never losing his grip on his opponent’s gun hand. In the gloomy cavern it was difficult to see, but Joe felt Kyle’s hot breath and knew that if he relaxed for just a moment he would be dead. Then Kyle’s right arm dropped and the gun was between their bodies. Joe was aware of his father shouting his name, but all of his concentration was on Kyle, trying to keep the gun away from his own body. A shot rang out. The sound echoed through the mine tunnels, and dust rained down on the fallen men. The ensuing silence was broken only by the laboured breathing of one man.
Ben crouched down and laid a hand on his young son’s body.
“Joseph?” he whispered, his voice gruff with emotion.
“Pa, I’m all right. Get him off me.”
Ben pulled the outlaw from his son. The man was obviously dead.
“Come on boy, let’s get outside.”
Suddenly the mine was full of voices shouting.
“This is the law. Throw down ya guns an come on out!”
“Pa! Pa! You okay?”
Ben squeezed Joe’s shoulder, then shouted a reply.
“We’re okay. The fella’s dead. I’ve got Joe with me.”
Moments later Roy Coffee and Hoss were helping Ben and Joe outside.
“Hey Joe. Boy are you a sight to behold. Hey you’re bleeding!”
Hoss looked aghast at Joe’s midriff. Looking down Joe was shocked to see his blood stained shirt and shook his head.
“Not my blood Hoss. I’m okay, just nicked my hand that’s all.”
Outside in the bright daylight Joe could see how haggard and strained his father looked. It was too much for him.
“Oh Pa! Pa! Adam’s dead. He did it, he’s the one.” Joe looked back at the mine entrance, his voice laced with bitterness.
“No Joe, it’s all right.”
Joe shook his head.
“No Pa, I saw it. He gunned Adam down, he never had a chance. Then he kicked and kicked Adam. I wanted to stop him Pa, really I did, but I couldn’t get to him.”
As Joe relived the happenings of the previous morning he began to shake. Ben laid his hand on Joe’s arm.
“Joe, it’s all right.”
Joe shook him off, angry at his father, unshed tears glistening in his eyes.
“Pa, you’re not listening to me. Adam’s dead! He’s been lying in that meadow since yesterday morning. And I didn’t do anything to help him.”
Hoss took hold of Joe’s other arm, but Joe wrenched it away from him.
“Joe you stop it, you listen to Pa. Adam’s all right.”
Ben took hold of Joe’s shoulders, shaking him gently to make him listen. He put his hands on either side of Little Joe’s face and looked directly into his young son’s teary eyes.
“He’s alive Joseph. We found Adam. He’s alive. He’s hurt bad, real bad, but he’s alive.”
Joe’s disbelieving eyes moved back and forth between father and brother. When he blinked the tears rolled down his cheeks. Joe rubbed his hand over his face leaving dirty streaks. Ben nodded to reaffirm and reassure.
“You really mean it? I was so sure he was dead.”
Ben put his arm around Joe’s shoulder and pulled him close.
After giving the family a few minutes alone Roy Coffee approached them.
“Little Joe. Are you hurt boy?”
Joe lifted his hand.
“Just a nick Sheriff, I’m fine.”
“Who was he Joe. Anyone else working with him?”
Joe took a deep breath, his legs suddenly wobbly.
“The one in the mine is Kyle Wilson. He’s the one who shot Adam. His father Judd Wilson is dead too. He’s in a cabin a couple of hours ride along a trail back that way.”
Joe pointed in the direction he had come from.
“He was shot by his other son, Newt. I don’t know where he is. Far as I could tell he rode off to the east.”
“All right, I’ll go check it out. Little Joe I’m gonna come out to the ranch tomorrow, get a full statement from ya.”
Joe nodded to the sheriff who turned to go back into the mine.
“Roy!” Ben called the sheriff back.
“Do me a favour would you Roy. Take the money back to Ira Johnson?”
“Sure Ben. Where you got it hid?”
“Come on, I’ll get it for you.”
“Boys, get that varmint outta there,” Roy shouted to the couple of men who had come along with him, then followed Ben to retrieve the stashed money.
Joe perched himself on a rock to wait for his father, and Hoss disappeared from sight. A few minutes later Ben and Roy returned with the moneybag, and Hoss returned leading three horses. Joe smiled with surprise.
“You brought Cochise.”
He took the reins from Hoss and gave the pinto a loving pat.
“Hi Cooch, good to see ya.”
“Yeah, I went back for him. I figured you wouldn’t want to go home any other way.”
Joe remembered the horse he had ridden in on.
“Oh Roy! There’s a horse tethered up in those trees.”
“All right Joe, we’ll get him.”
Joe gingerly pulled himself up into the saddle, for once not using his usual vaulting leap.
“Let’s go, I want to see Adam.”
Three hours later the men rode into the Ponderosa yard and tied their horses in front of the ranch house. Hop Sing came hurrying out.
“Hey boss, you get Lil Joe back. All safe and sound?”
“Yes Hop Sing, all safe and sound.”
“You hurt bad, Lil Joe?” Hop Sing asked noticing Joe’s blood stained shirt.
“No I’m fine Hop Sing, it’s not my blood. How’s Adam doing?”
“Doctor with Mr. Adam. You visit Mr. Adam, Hop Sing fix vely good meal.”
Hop Sing turned and bustled back into the house followed by the three Cartwrights. Joe walked straight across the room to the stairs. He needed to satisfy himself that Adam really was still alive.
Ben caught up with his son.
“Adam may be awake. Change your shirt first, don’t let him see you like that.”
Together they walked up the stairs. Ben slipped into Adam’s room, and Joe went into his own. For a moment he sat on his bed, almost unable to believe he was home. Then he stripped off his shirt and poured water into the basin. He washed his hands and face, paying particular attention to the graze on his wrist. He was glad to see that it was little more than a scratch. He grabbed a fresh shirt, buttoning it as he walked down the hallway to Adam’s room. He opened the door quietly, almost dreading to enter. His father and the doctor were talking quietly, and Joe moved in and stood at the foot of the bed watching as Adam struggled for each rasping breath. He was surprised to see his brother siting almost upright. His face was all shades of blue, purple and red, his left eye swollen and angry looking, the skin around it almost black. A vision of Kyle Wilson kicking Adam swam before Joe’s eyes.
“Joe. Come and sit here.”
Ben directed his son to the chair close to Adam’s side.
“The bullet wound’s beginning to heal. He has a couple of broken ribs too, that’s why there are so many bandages.”
Joe sat down and laid his hand on top of Adam’s. How many times had Adam greeted him with a firm handshake? But now his hand lay limp on the bed. Joe took his brother’s hand between both of his own as though trying to instil some of his own youthful strength into Adam.
“Adam. Adam. Can you hear me? It’s Joe.”
There was no response, and Joe looked up at his father.
“He’ll wake soon Joe.”
Paul Martin came and stood behind Joe, resting a hand on the young man’s shoulder.
“Adam’s been fighting hard. Battling against the odds. He’s tired, but I think he is winning.”
While he was speaking the doctor had reached over and taken hold of Joe’s left hand, examining the graze on his wrist.
“Doesn’t look too bad. Keep that clean Joe.”
“Ben, now that all of your boys are home, I’m going back to town. I have other patients I need to see. And I would like to sleep in my own bed.”
“Yes, of course Paul. Thank you for staying for so long.”
“Ben, if you’re at all worried about Adam, send one of your men in to get me. And see if you can get Little Joe to get some sleep. He looks exhausted.”
After seeing the doctor out Ben returned to Joe and Adam.
“Joe, might be a good idea to get some rest.”
“I’d like to sit with Adam for a while.”
Ben laid a reassuring hand on Joe’s back for a moment, then left.
For a long while, Joe just sat and watched. Watched as Adam’s chest, swathed in bandages, rose and fell. With each tortured breath Joe was filled afresh with anger at Kyle Wilson for the hurt he had inflicted on Adam. Adam was invincible. That’s what Joe had always thought. Strong and sure, a force to be reckoned with, but a protector too. Only in believing that he had lost him, did Joe fully understand how deep was the love and respect he felt for his sometimes bossy, older brother. The thought of life without him had been too painful to contemplate. He thought he had lost him forever, but now, thank God, he was back.
“Adam,” Joe whispered. “Adam, you’ve just got to get well. I couldn’t go through your dying all over again. I just couldn’t. I need you to be here Adam. Next to Pa…well…well just don’t die. Please.”
Adam’s good eye opened slightly.
“Adam! Hey Adam. I thought you would never wake up.”
Joe’s voice was joyous; his face lit up with a smile.
Adam’s voice was weak between gasping breaths.
“Well I sorta found him and Pa.”
Adam looked puzzled
“Hey I’ll tell you all about it when you feel better. Adam I’m sorry I couldn’t warn you. Sorry you got shot.”
“Not…your fault. Don’t…plan…on…dying.”
Adam gave a feeble attempt at a smile, which turned into a gasping cough and he hugged his chest. The bout over Adam began wheezing again, his face pallid where it was untouched by bruising, beads of sweat on his brow.
Gradually Adam’s breathing eased and he closed his eyes. Little Joe thought he had gone back to sleep. He bathed Adam’s forehead then once more sat, quiet and still, watching his brother’s chest rise and fall. After a few minutes Adam’s eyes opened again. Joe smiled tentatively.
“You okay Adam?”
“Probably best not to talk any more.”
The door opened and Ben came into the room.
“Little Joe, Hop Sing has a tub of hot water waiting for you and supper is almost ready.”
Joe rose to leave.
“I’ll see ya later Adam. You get some rest.”
Ben walked across to Adam’s side.
“Adam. It’s good to see you awake again son. Do you think you could manage some soup. You must be hungry.”
Adam gave a slight nod.
“Good. I’ll be right back.”
In the washroom, Joe found a pile of fresh clean clothes, soft towels and a bathtub of steaming water. He discarded his dirty clothing and lowered himself into the water. Once he was used to the heat he soaped himself clean, then relaxed letting the water soothe his aches and pains. He closed his eyes and lay back, contented just to soak. It seemed like only a moment later that someone was shaking his shoulder.
“Lil Joe. Not good you sleep in bath. Get out now. Supper ready.”
“All right, all right. Anyway I wasn’t sleeping, just resting my eyes, honest.”
Hop Sing shook his head and muttered in Chinese as he left the room.
While Joe was towelling himself dry he discovered bruises all over his body, but none were as bad as the ugly blemishes that marked Adam. While he dressed his stomach began to growl. He was ravenously hungry. He hadn’t eaten in two days.
Was it really only two days!
During supper Joe related the events of his captivity to Ben and Hoss.
“Judd Wilson was really trying to hurt you Pa. He blamed you for his other son being in jail. He died there. Wilson wanted you to suffer from losing a son. Kyle Wilson was a cold-blooded killer. He laughed about killing Adam, and I am sure he would have killed me too. All he was interested in was getting the money.”
“Who was this Wilson Pa?” Hoss asked. “How come they was blaming you for what happened to the other son?”
“Well some years ago I gave evidence at the trial of a man in Carson City. He’d shot a bank teller when he was trying to rob the bank. Shot the young fella down in cold-blood, there was no need for it. I was in the bank and my evidence got the man convicted. His name was Hank Wilson. Of course, I hadn’t made the connection until Joe mentioned the name. As for him dying, I knew nothing of that.”
“Yeah, I remember that now,” Hoss said. Name just didn’t ring any bells. Sounds like they was a mean, vicious family. Hope they catch the other one.”
“You know, in a way it was Judd Wilson who saved Adam’s life.”
Ben raised his eyebrows, surprised at Joe’s comment.
“In what way Joe?”
“Well, after Kyle had shot Adam, he was going to put the gun to Adam’s head and fire again. But the old man pulled the gun off him; afraid the shots would bring nearby cowboys. That’s when Kyle took to kicking Adam.”
They sat quietly for a few minutes, contemplating what might have been.
“You know I feel kinda sorry for that Newt. He was just dragged along by his father and brother. And when he shot his father, well Wilson was really taunting him, saying he was too scared to pull the trigger. I don’t think Newt even meant to do it. He was the only one who showed any remorse for Adam being shot. He tried to talk them into just getting the money and letting me go. But Kyle was dead set on killing me too.”
Adam woke and knew immediately that he was feeling better. His shoulder hurt but not too bad. The tender feeling in his side was still there and he knew better than to try to move, but it too felt better. Sticky matter had once more sealed his left eye, but Pa would bathe it. Best of all, despite the tightness he could still feel in his chest, he could breathe again. It no longer took a gargantuan effort to inhale each gasping, painful breath. He tried to remember what his father had told him, and was annoyed that he still felt confused about the cause of his injuries. He was sure that Joe was back from wherever he had been. He seemed to remember his young brother talking to him. So many dreams and nightmares. Hard to remember what was real.
Adam half opened his good eye. The room was bright. Daytime at last. Always it seemed to be night. Sunlight was streaming through the window and Adam could see snatches of blue between the dark foliage of the trees.
To his surprise his whole family was seated around his bed. He observed each member in turn. His father’s face care worn, aged with worry and tiredness. Every time he had woken from his nightmares, Pa had been there, cooling his brow, giving him water to drink. Hoss looked uncomfortable, his bulk perched on a straight-backed chair, a frown furrowing his pleasant features. He looked tired too. Little Joe, sitting closest, looked ill, his face drawn and pale. Dark lines under his closed eyes contrasted starkly with his wan complexion. Adam could feel his young brother’s hand holding lightly on to his own. This rather harrowing sight gladdened Adam’s heart. He didn’t understand what had happened, but whatever it was, they were together, they were whole.
“Doesn’t anyone do a lick of work around here without I’m pushing,” Adam whispered.
He watched his father. After a fleeting moment of surprise, his face broke into a smile and the years seemed to fall away.
“Adam. Glad to see you’re awake son. You took a turn for the worse. You’ve had bad couple of days.”
Ben reached for a cloth and bathed Adam’s eye so that he could open it once more.
Hoss had a silly grin on his face.
“Welcome back brother.”
Only Joe wasn’t smiling. He had passed a hand over his face, and now was staring at Adam, his grip tightening on his brother’s hand.
What was wrong with him? Was he really ill?
Adam managed a painful wink, and watched as his brother’s eyes seem to leap back to life, the old sparkle returned and Joe flashed him one of those dazzling smiles that the ladies loved so much.
“How ya feeling Adam?” Hoss asked.
“Well, that’s a good sign,” Ben said. “What would you like to eat?”
“Steak, potatoes, green beans, apple pie.”
“Mmm. Fine. I think Hop Sing has some soup on the stove.”
“Dadburnit Adam, you just reminded me how hungry I am. That steak dinner sounds just fine to me. Can’t remember the last time I had a big piece of fresh apple pie.”
Little Joe giggled his old familiar giggle.
“Seems like that was all of five days ago Hoss!”
Adam allowed himself to relax.
Everything’s all right.
“Come on Joe,” Ben said. “You promised that when Adam woke you would get some rest.”
Joe pulled a face, ready to resist.
“Joe, you look awful. Go get some sleep,” Adam said quietly.
Joe hesitated for a moment, then nodded.
“All right Adam. I guess I am pretty tired. You take it easy. I’ll see ya later.”
When Joe and Ben had left, Hoss moved to sit beside Adam’s bed.
“Ya know Adam, you look pretty awful yourself.”
Adam gave a lop-sided smile.
“I feel better Hoss, really.”
“I’m glad to hear it Adam. You sure had us all worried. Ya look real different with that beard.”
Adam ran his hand over his aching face surprised to discover a thick beard.
“Pa couldn’t bring himself to shave you with all them bruises,” Hoss said.
Adam managed a small smile.
“Hoss, what’s been going on?”
Hoss filled his brother in on all that had happened over the past few days.
“No wonder Joe looks so bad. Poor kid. He’s really been through it hasn’t he.”
“Now don’t you go worrying about him Adam. He’ll be fine now he knows you’re all right. He just needs to get some sleep an he’ll be as bright as a button.”
“I don’t remember being shot.”
Adam thought for a few moments.
“Last thing I remember is looking for cougar tracks.”
“Good. I’ll get the men to move the cattle up there.”
“Not ‘til someone fixes the fence.”
“Oh yeah. You an Little Joe kinda slacked off there didn’t ya.”
“How is Pa? How is he really? Is he all right? Are you?”
Hoss patted Adam’s hand reassuringly.
“Pa’s fine. Me too. Nothing a good night’s sleep won’t fix. Don’t you start worrying Adam, you just concentrate on getting well.”
Adam sighed and closed his eyes. Hoss followed his older brother’s lead, relaxed back in the chair and closed his own eyes.
Two weeks later Adam was up and about, but on doctor’s orders not allowed to work. His bruises had turned to delicate shades of yellow and green, and he did his best to convince his family that his shoulder and ribs hardly hurt at all. At first he had objected to being confined to the house, but his over anxious family made less fuss if he just sat around and took things easy. Now that he was feeling better, he became irritated with his father who was constantly checking on him, and with his brothers who were forever asking if they could get him anything. He knew that he was ready to be back at work, but to make life bearable he did as he was told. He filled the days reading and learning some new songs on his guitar, though his still healing shoulder hindered him a little, not that he would have admitted it to any member of his family. But oh how he was itching to get outside and do something. He was contemplating making a visit to Sport in the barn. Surely Pa couldn’t object to a breath of fresh air, and the walk across the yard was hardly going to wear him out. He was just wondering where his father actually was, when he felt a draught of cold air as the door opened. Sheriff Roy Coffee came in accompanied by Ben and Little Joe.
“Adam. Yer looking a whole lot better than the last time I saw ya.”
“Morning Roy. I’m perfectly well thank you.”
Ben gave Adam one of his looks, before inviting Roy to sit.
“You said you had some news for us Sheriff,” Joe said anxious to hear what Roy Coffee had to say.
“Yep Little Joe. It’s about that last Wilson fella.”
“He’s been caught then?”
“Kinda Joe, he’s dead.”
“Shot dead in a little town up near Reno. Seems the lad was caught stealing food from a store. Storeowner took after him, screaming for the sheriff. Kid starts shootin’ wild like, an the sheriff shot him down dead. Didn’t even know the boy was wanted ‘til after he was killed.”
“Bound to happen sooner or later, a boy like that,” Ben said.
“Well just thought ya’d want to know. Gotta get going. Good to see ya Adam.”
Ben walked out with the Sheriff and Joe slumped down on the settee.
“Come on Joe. Pa’s right. It was bound to happen.”
“I know Adam. It’s just that I kinda feel sorry for him. He was the best one of ‘em. I reckon he’d have been all right if he’d had a decent family.”
Ben returned to catch Joe’s last comment.
“You feeling bad about young Wilson, Joe?”
“He didn’t harm Adam or me. I’m sure he didn’t really mean to shoot the old man either.”
“He did though Joe. Shot his own father,” Ben said.
“The old man was goading him to do it. Do you think that if he’d been caught he would have been hanged?”
“I don’t know son, but he’s dead now. Nothing to be done about it.”
Ben squeezed his son’s shoulder.
“Joseph, some people just get a raw deal in life.”
Joe nodded sadly.
“Well I’ve got a lot of horses to move before nightfall. Best get going.”
“Little brother, would you like me to give you a hand?”
Joe grinned as Adam’s words drew the expected reaction from their father.
“Adam, don’t you even think of it. You don’t even go outside of this house. Do you hear me? If you’re so anxious to get back to work, the monthly accounts never did get finished. You can spend some time on them.”
Adam rolled his eyes, exasperating his father even more. Ben poked his finger in the air.
“I mean it Adam.”
Adam sighed very loudly by way of expressing his objection.
“All right! All right! Maybe I’ll take a look at the accounts.”
“Good. That’s more like it.”
Ben followed Joe to the door, picked up his hat and the two men left.
Adam wandered over to the desk in the office area, took the accounts ledger out of the drawer and sat down in the big leather chair. He opened up the book and cast his eye over the figures. A moment later he flicked the ledger shut, returned to his seat by the fire, and picked up a book from the floor. He had ordered it months ago, and Joe had collected it from the post office last week. He read the title on the front cover.
“The Moonstone” by Wilkie Collins.
Earlier he had been pretty sure he knew what had happened to the diamond, but now he was not so sure. He looked across to the desk with its accounts ledger, and then back down at the book in his hands. He leaned forward to the low table in front of the fire and picked an apple from the fruit bowl. Then he made himself comfortable, placed his booted feet firmly on the table, took a bite from the apple and resumed his reading. After all he was convalescing and couldn’t possibly be expected to work.