The Embers of the Day (by Morgan’s Crest)

Summary: This story is the result of ten authors responding to a gauntlet being thrown down at our feet. So, sit back and enjoy the latest adventure of the Cartwright family.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  20,256


 Part One: Nanuk

“Joe?” Adam asked softly in the darkness of the night. He tried to turn his head, but stilled when he felt a hand on his cheek.

“I’m here,” his brother replied equally softly, and to Adam it seemed that his voice floated in the air, without body, without hold.

“Joe,” he asked again. It hurt his lungs, it hurt and he had to cough, but that hurt even more. Through his agony, he felt strong hands holding him, and he asked, even though he could hardly spare the breath to do it. “Are you ok?”

Again Joe’s voice floated to him through the darkness, and when he lay back down on the pillow, weak and exhausted, he could even hear the words, and they comforted him like a blanket wrapped around his body and mind.

“Don’t worry. Everything will be fine.”

*****

Part Two: GrimesGirl

Joe raised worried eyes to Hoss. He watched his brother shake his head and motion with a jerk of his head for Joe to join him away from the cot where Adam lay. Quietly, the two moved as far away from their injured brother as possible in the small cabin.

Joe could see the concern in Hoss’ eyes. He was sure it matched his own. He glanced back and saw Adam trying to rise. He quickly made his way back across the room and arrived just in time to keep his brother from tumbling to the floor. He grabbed Adam and gently pushed him back onto the thin mattress.

“Adam, you gotta lay still. Please, don’t try to get up, you’re just going to open that wound again and we just got the bleeding stopped.”

Adam’s tried to open his heavy eyes. But, even that small effort seemed too much for his tired mind. He didn’t seem to be able to put his thoughts together. All he seemed to be able to think about were the sheets of pain that seemed to roll in waves through his very being. ‘What was wrong?’ He couldn’t seem to remember what had happened. ‘Where were they?’ He knew he wasn’t in his own bed, but beyond that nothing seemed to make sense.

Joe sat for a moment, making certain that Adam would stay put. Finally, he felt it was safe to leave him. He joined Hoss and they again walked across the room.

“Hoss, I think he’s going into shock. He’s sweating like blazes, and yet he was shivering when I was holding him. What are we gonna do? We’re miles from any help; we don’t have any kind of medicine.”

Hoss drew a deep breath and began to lay out his plan.

*****

Part Three: Cressida

“With his ribs like that, I don’t want to put ‘im up on Sport, even if the horse was willing.” Hoss looked over at the figure of his brother and his face creased into worried lines. Getting caught up in the high country with a sick brother had been no part of his plan for a late fall hunting trip.

Hoss crossed to the narrow end of the cabin and bent down to examine the old steamer trunk that was pushed against the wall. “He ain’t gonna be alive much longer if we don’t get him calmed down and breathin’ easier. I wonder what’s in this old trunk.” He ran his fingers across the dented lock. “Give me your knife, Joe.”

“I don’t think…”

“Give me the knife, Joe.”

Joe slipped his hunting knife out of its scabbard and snapped it handle first into Hoss’ open palm.

Hoss pried carefully at the lock. “Maybe—can—just—”

“You got it!” Joe was willing to hang his hopes on anything at this point. He took the knife back and watched Hoss pull the trunk away from the wall slightly and raise the lid.

*****

Part Four: PRj

Hoss pulled out a couple of blankets and two pairs of sheets.

“Hey, we could tear these sheets up and wrap Adam’s ribs.” Joe said, as he peeked to see what was underneath the bedding.

They found some canned food, a cane knife, four boxes of bullets, two bottles of whiskey, and a small wooden box. Adam moaned, garnering the attention of his brothers. They both moved towards him as he tried to sit up.

“Adam!” they both cried.

“Don’t move around so much.” Hoss put his hands on Adam’s shoulders to keep him down.

“Have to…help…Hoss, Joe. Danger…” Adam fought to get up, as his head exploded in dizzy confusion.

“Please, Adam. Don’t move. You have to stay still.” Joe looked worriedly at Hoss, who was still fighting to keep Adam from moving around too much.

“What do you think he means, Hoss?” Joe asked, as he went back towards the trunk to get a bottle of whiskey.

“I don’t know, Joe. We better be on guard though. If Adam says there’s danger about, we know there is.” Hoss looked up as Joe handed him a glass with some whiskey in it. “I hope this well relax him.” Hoss held the glass near Adam’s lips and gave him small amounts until it was empty.

“Hoss…” Adam whispered.

Hoss moved closer to Adam so he could hear what was being said. Joe watched as Hoss slowly shook his head.

“Adam, it’s alright to sleep. Joe and I are fine. Go to sleep.” Hoss coaxed.

Joe furrowed his brow. “What did he say?”

“I’m not sure. Warn, coming, is all I could make out.” Hoss took one of the blankets he found in the trunk and covered Adam. “At least he is starting to sleep again. Joe, Adam is burning up. I’m worried—real worried,” he sighed. “Let’s get those sheets cut into strips so we can wrap up his ribs.”

Joe knew Adam was in real trouble if Hoss was worried. His older brother had a doctor’s touch, and had healed countless creatures – many that people had given up on. Joe gazed at Adam a moment longer, and then went to help Hoss.

*****

Part Five: Arien

“Joe…warn…”Adam panted through gritted teeth. “Need to…help…Joe…”

“Take it easy, Adam.” Joe tried to calm his older brother. “You helped me; I’m all right.”

“I wish I knew what he’s mumbling about,” Hoss said, lifting Adam so that Joe could wind the bandages around the damaged ribcage.

“I have no idea what he’s talking about. You think he’s reliving something else? With that high fever, there’s no telling when or where he thinks he is.”

‘What does “warn” and “coming” mean,’ Joe wondered as he helped Hoss bind their brother’s ribs. No matter how he approached the words, he couldn’t find the hidden meaning in them. He knew there had to be some meaning to them; he just couldn’t seem to wrap his mind around it.

“Do you think he’ll be all right,” Joe asked, looking up from tying the bandages off.

“We need to get his fever down, and I don’t know how we’re going to do that,” Hoss said, after a moment’s hesitation. “He’s breathing a bit easier now that his ribs are stable.”

“I think there’s a creek not too far from here,” Joe said, trying to recall the geography around the old shack. “I can make it there and back in a couple of hours. The water should cool him down enough for tonight. In the morning, we can rig a travois to get him out of here.”

“What are we going to put the water in?” Hoss wondered, as he looked at the shack’s meager offerings. “What do you think of emptying those cans and putting the water from our canteens in there? Then, you can bring more water back that way.”

“Sounds about like the only option we have, brother. I’ll get our cooking gear out, and you warm up those beans” Joe said, as he reached up to pat Hoss on the back. “While I’m at it, I’ll see if I can’t get us a bit of meat to go with those beans. I’m not in the mood for cow fodder.”

Joe moved away from his brother and began riffling through their saddlebags. “Here, I brought this along to help us keep warm,” he grinned, tossing a full bottle of whiskey at Hoss and watched as his brother adeptly caught it. “We can use that to help ease older brother’s pain and maybe disinfect some of the deeper cuts on him.”

“Little brother, you sure are full of surprises tonight.” Hoss said, as he yanked the stopper out and crossed the small room to Adam’s side – gently lifting his brother’s head. “Adam, drink a little bit of this for me. It’ll help you forget all about your pains, all right?” He tipped the bottle carefully and watched as his older brother took a few swallows. Making sure his brother was covered again, Hoss made his way back to opening the cans.

After he found the cooking gear, Joe reached over and took a can from Hoss. Pulling out his own knife, Joe set about helping open the remaining cans. The pair worked in silence for a time; and, at last, the cans were emptied of their contents and refilled with water.

Gathering the canteens, Joe crossed to the door but hesitated a moment after he opened it.

“Keep a lookout for whatever he’s been trying to warn us about,” Joe warned Hoss. “Last thing I need is to have to get you and Adam off of this mountain.”

“You just worry about keeping your eyes open, younger brother. I can keep me and ol’ Adam safe. You, on the other hand, ain’t got enough sense to come in out of the rain,” Hoss said, trying to lighten the grim mood that had settled in the small room.

“It’s me were talking about,” Joe responded, tightening his lips in what might have been a smile in other circumstances. “I can move as quietly as a shadow if the need arises.”

Joe left quickly after seeing the look of utter disbelief cross the other man’s face. He really didn’t want to hear what Hoss might say to that last statement. The laughter drifting from the shack spoke volumes.

*****

On the trek to the creek, Joe had plenty of time to ponder the events that had led to Adam’s injury. It had seemed like an innocent enough suggestion for the three brothers to go hunting. It was not something they did together very often—typically going off in a pair while leaving the remaining brother to help their father on the ranch.

When Joe and his brothers had reached the timberline, he had suggested Hoss stay to set up the camp. He had wanted to see if any animals had been through the land around them, and Adam had agreed to go with him. Leaving the horses with Hoss, the two had set off at a leisurely pace so as not to frighten potential game.

Hearing a branch breaking off to his right, Joe had signaled for Adam to be quiet as he set off in search of the noise. Quietly, he had climbed up the slight incline towards a section of fallen tree. If he had not been so intent on the noise, he might have noticed that the tree was not particularly stable. Again, the soft sound reached his ears and, moments later, a bellow followed. He looked up to see the section of tree rolling towards him.

A weight hit him from his left and knocked him to the ground. Seconds later, the sound of something crashing below penetrated the blood roaring in his ears.

“Adam! You all right down there?” Joe shouted, his breath coming in gasps. Silence answered him, and his heart had beat a staccato against his chest as fear for his brother washed over him.

Gaining his feet, he moved to go down the incline when he noticed his brother’s body sprawled on the ground near him.

“Adam,” he whispered, as he rushed forward to check on his brother. He knew that Adam had knocked him out of the way of the falling log.

Reaching the other’s side, he could see that Adam was unconscious and, from the cracked ribs he could feel, it was most assuredly for the best.

Breaking free of his reverie, Joe realized the creek had been much closer than he realized, and he had made short work of filling the canteens with the much needed water.

After placing the now full containers around the saddle horn, Joe moved to mount Cochise.

“Come on, Cooch. I have to find some game to take back with us,” he said. “We need to get back to those brothers of mine. No telling what kind of trouble they could be in without us there.”

“Oh, I’m sure they’re not in as much trouble as you are,” a voice spoke from behind him.

Before he could move for his gun, pain flared behind Joe’s eyes and the world descended into darkness.

*****

“Joe…have…safe…”Adam continued breathlessly. His world was one of half-formed thoughts and images. Nothing made sense to his muddled mind. “Please…Joe…”

Hoss was worried for his older brother. The man had been rambling for hours about some vague warning about Joe. Several times Adam had tried to get off the cot and had to be restrained. It broke his heart to hear his brother begging for his help. Hoss knew there was nothing he could do until they could get off this blasted mountain and into Virginia City to the doctor.

“Adam, he’ll be fine. As he said, he can move ‘like a shadow’ when he needs to,” Hoss repeated while sponging water onto the fevered brow. Joe was an hour overdue, but Hoss assumed that he was having trouble hunting down something to go with the beans.

A noise from outside drew Hoss’ attention. “See, there. He’s back already. You didn’t have nothing to worry about.”

Crossing to the door, he opened it to call out to Joe. The words stuck in his throat when he saw the men holding his brother’s limp body between them.

“Looks like the shadow got caught,” Joe lifted his head, looking Hoss in the eyes, and pushed the words past his battered lips before blackness closed in again.

*****

Part Six: Nanuk

Desperately Hoss fought against the bonds that confined his wrists, but they just chafed his skin until the flesh felt painfully raw. Moving his feet proved equally unsuccessful, and he quickly glanced at their captors and barely suppressed a sigh when he felt their eyes on him. Shifting uncomfortably in the corner they had put him into, he tried to get a glance of his brothers.

Joe had been bound as well, his hands tied behind his back. A small trickle of blood had run down his face and neck and into his collar; and Hoss knew from the brows drawn together that his brother was on the verge of waking up to blurred images and a full-blown headache.

They had left Adam alone, his hands free, and Hoss couldn’t help but be thankful for small mercies. Even from the distance he was able to hear the faint rasp in his brother’s breath, could make out the flush that tinged his too pale skin. Again Hoss shifted gently, trying to get a better look, and just as he watched, dark lashes fluttered open and revealed eyes clouded with pain.

Hoss’ heart jumped when he saw his brother’s golden gaze directed at him – saw the confusion on Adam’s ashen features and the obvious effort to make sense of the picture that presented itself.

But just as he watched, another, unmistakable angry voice and one he knew only too well, sounded from outside; and his heart slid into his boots and through the floorboards.

Then the door opened and a person was thrust inside.

“We got ‘im, Boss,” one of the men said.

*****

Part Seven: Grimesgirl

Ben stumbled as he was pushed through the door. Catching himself, he drew a deep breath, taking in the sight of Hoss, bound hand and foot, Joe just starting to stir and, on the cot, Adam unbound, flushed with fever and completely confused.

Ben pulled his arm away from the man escorting him and, drawing himself to his full height, exclaimed in as calm a voice as he could muster, “What is this all about? What do you men want?”

The man who had been called ‘boss’ simply stared, his eyes full of hatred. Ben couldn’t, for the life of him, remember ever seeing him before.

Silence seemed to fill the small room. A movement from the cot caught Ben’s eye and he started to go to his son but stopped short when he felt the business end of a gun pressed into his back.

“I’d stay put, if I was ya, Cartwright,” growled a voice in his ear.

“I want to see to my son. He’s obviously hurt and needs medical attention,” Ben offered with barely concealed anger. “You apparently want the whole family well; by the looks of him, you might not get your wish if you don’t let someone see to him.”

“No one touches him,” a harsh voice stated. It was the dark man that had been called ‘boss’.

“Again, I’m asking: what is it that you want?”

“Everything you have, Cartwright, everything you have. We’re beginning with your sons. When I’m through with you…you will have nothing left. No ranch, no riches and best of all, no family. We’ll start with the oldest and work right through the three of them,” was the sneering reply.

“If you plan on depriving me of all I have, I should, at least, know who you are and why you’re doing this.”

“All in good time – all in good time. I think you’ll learn quickly enough who I am. If fact, if you think back about twenty-five years, you could probably answer most of your questions yourself.”

“Twenty-five years?” Ben asked in confusion. That would be before Joe was even born and they were just settling the Ponderosa.

“Pa…Pa…” Adam’s slurred, barely audible voice broke through Ben’s confusion, “remember…I think…”

*****

Part Eight: dbird

As soon as he had spoken, Adam’s words slurred into incoherency, and his eyes closed again. Whatever his oldest son had been trying to tell him would have to wait until he was able to tell it. It wasn’t easy, but Ben forced himself to clamp down on his rising anger at the condition he had found his sons in. With Adam and Joe unconscious, he and Hoss would have to remain in control of their emotions, if they had any hopes of pulling through.

The man who seemed to be leading the men let loose with a low whistle and laughed.

“You don’t remember me, do you?” he asked. “Your oldest boy seems to remember. Too bad he’s feeling a bit under the weather, right now. Elsewise, I’d expect he’d have a right interesting story to tell. And we’ve got plenty of time for a good story, ain’t that right, boys?”

His cronies nodded and chortled. Ben realized that the men had apparently been helping themselves to one of the dusty bottles that lined a storage shelf. One of the men dropped the bottle. As glass shards shattered across the floor, immediately the smell of cheap whiskey overwhelmed the small room. Another man reached for another bottle and passed it to his nearby friend. The man took a swig, wiped his mouth with his filthy sleeve, and for good measure, landed a hard kick to Joe’s ribs. There was no doubt about it: they were running out of time. The liquor only seemed to be bringing out the worst in the men.

Ben clenched his fists so tightly that he swore he could feel the blood coursing through his veins. Two of his sons were already in such dire condition. For just a moment, Ben Cartwright considered the distinct possibility that the Cartwright name might not carry on through the day.

He shook himself right out his hopelessness. He didn’t have time for that sort of fool thinking. His sons would have demanded more of him, if they knew what he was thinking, and rightly so. Adam was desperately ill. From across the room, the experienced father could make out all the telltale signs of a raging fever. Joe didn’t look much better off. Curled on his side on the grime caked floor, his youngest boy was groaning and obviously fighting his way back to consciousness.

Across the room, with his arms tightly bound, Hoss stared at his father solemnly, waiting for any signal he might give. Ben ordered himself to come up with a plan, any sort of a plan. There was no time to think of how this day might end. This very moment had enough troubles of its own. The day would have to take care of itself.

The boss squinted at Ben out of his heavily lidded eyes and smiled.

“Cartwright,” he snarled, “you better stop looking over at that big boy of yours like that, or he’s the next to go. I figure that two living sons are enough to keep you in line, without running the risk of the big one trying to be some kind of a hero. They’re all going to die, one way or another. Don’t matter to me which order it starts. Try something and I’ll put a bullet in his head.”

Ben exchanged a last desperate glance with Hoss, before he forced himself to turn away. If only Adam had been able to tell him what he remembered. If only he could remember who this man was and why he was holding a grudge that had spanned more than two decades.

The leader laughed a bit and spat at Joe’s feet. He ambled across the room towards his men who had finished off the bottle and were starting on another, turning suddenly to address the man who was guarding Ben with his six-shooter.

“Tie him up,” the boss ordered, carelessly gesturing with the bottle he had grabbed from the shelf. “If he gives you any trouble, kill the big one.”

The man behind Ben laughed, and he could smell his sour tobacco breath huffing next to his face. Ben realized he didn’t have many choices left. It was time to move now, before it was too late for all of them.

As he desperately considered his next move, it completely escaped his attention that his youngest son had stopped groaning and lay quietly on the floor. If Ben had been watching Hoss, he would have seen his middle son’s eyes widen with alarm, when he saw that Little Joe was very much awake. If he had been looking across the room, he would have seen Adam’s eyes open and his mouth forming words.

He would have seen his oldest son barely say, “Don’t do it, Joe.”

But he didn’t see any of those things, and by the time it happened, it was already too late.

Before anyone could find a way to stop him, Joe’s legs kicked out and scissored the leader, cutting him right across his knees. Caught off balance, the man stumbled backwards, before toppling over directly on top of Joe. Muttering choice words for his foolhardy son, Ben flung himself backwards, elbowing his own guard in the ribs. With strength born of desperation, Adam managed to force himself onto an elbow and into a sitting position. Although tightly bound, Hoss flung himself into the path of the nearest man.

To Ben’s amazement, men were falling and the Cartwright family was fighting back. As Ben turned to land a right hook to his surprised captor’s jaw, he thought to himself that they might have a chance after all.

Their moment ended almost before it began. The roar of gunfire exploded in the small room, as bullets flew in all directions. The smell of gunpowder wafted through the air.

And in the midst of smoke and confusion, Ben heard his youngest son screaming one word.

“Hoss!”

*****

Part Nine: Arien

Hearing his youngest son’s voice crying out, Ben’s heart lurched as he feared the worst. The men had made sure that each of the Cartwrights understood what their fate would be if they chose to defy their captors. As the smoke from the guns cleared, a profound silence fell.

“That was a warning,” growled the man Ben had named Boss. He was breathing heavily as he slowly got to his feet. “Next time, I won’t miss. I want each of you to suffer—you especially Cartwright. I want to see your face as each of your sons die in front of your eyes. A bullet would deprive me of that pleasure.”

“Hoss! Are you all right?” Ben gasped, his heart hammering at the near miss. “Joe? Adam?”

Hoss sat up painfully, a wary eye trained on their captors. Looking around, he could see that Joe was bleeding from several cuts to his face and appeared to be unconscious. He was sure he looked no better than his young brother.

Swiveling his head towards the cot, it was clear that any awareness Adam had possessed was gone again. The man was lying on his back, slack-jawed. For a moment, Hoss thought his brother had died after all. But, upon closer inspection, he could detect a faint rise and fall of the black-clad chest.

“Yeah, Pa, I’m all right. I ain’t so sure about those two brothers of mine, though,” Hoss replied, pulling at his restraints. If I can just get loose…

“Who are you?” Ben demanded again, eyes flashing. He wracked his brain but nothing about this man seemed familiar. He certainly couldn’t place an event that this man referred to. “What in heaven’s name could have happened twenty-five years ago that would cause you to do this?”

“I’m sure, as you watch each of your sons die, it will all come back to you,” Boss said, his eyes holding a malicious gleam. He had planned this moment for years; and, finally, it would be put into motion.

A sudden groan from the floor announced Joe’s return to consciousness.

Ben watched as the boss walked over to the prostrate form. A flicker of a vague emotion passed across the man’s face as he drew back his foot and slammed the booted heel into the already abused ribs. Ben wasn’t sure but thought he heard the sound of breaking ribs over the loud moan that emanated from his son.

“I said I didn’t care in which order you died,” Boss said, drawing back his boot for another blow. “You just moved to the front of the line.”

Suddenly, a breathless voice sounded in the small cabin before the foot could land another strike.

“Nathaniel…he’s Nathaniel’s…father…” Adam’s voice wafted from the cot. His world was going from light to dark, and he hoped his father had heard him. His voice sounded weak to his ears.

Nathaniel? Ben’s mind leapt back over the years, remembering a sandy-haired boy, a playmate of Adam’s. Nathaniel…Pike? If so, this would be Norman Pike, the boy’s father. Suddenly the pieces fell into place…

*****

Part Ten: Nanuk

Hoss watched his father’s face grow pale, saw his gaze flicker towards Adam as if he wanted him to deny the four words that had broken the heavy silence of the shack.

Too young to remember himself, he knew, from threads and pieces of conversation pitched together, that Adam had almost lost his life then, that all of them had almost lost their life back then. When Hoss tried to remember back, tried to force himself to remember, only blurred images appeared his mind, elusive like water running through his hands, but there was a feeling of dread that washed over him that was hard to ignore. Now, watching the blood drain from his father’s already ashen face, Hoss knew that they were deeper in trouble than he had originally thought.

One look at Joe to his right told him that his assumption from before had been correct; hugging his ribcage tightly, his brother tried to take in short, breathless gasps of air, the stains of dried blood painting a grotesque mask on his skin. Again Hoss wriggled his hand to try and loosen the bindings, and to his surprise the rope gave away, ever so slightly.

However, Hoss didn’t have time to enjoy his tiny success for long; Pike beckoned to his men, four of them trained their weapons on them, while another pulled hoods out of a saddlebag and then stepped carefully around them to pull them over their heads.

The last thing Hoss saw before everything went black was his father’s chalk-white face, and men dragging his brothers outside. Inhaling softly, he carefully braced his arms and hoped that the men wouldn’t notice that the ropes had lost their strain.

 *****

Part Eleven: debpet

Norman Pike’s men were anything but gentle as they dragged the four Cartwrights out of the cabin with hoods tied over their heads. Adam and Joe, both hovering on the edges of consciousness, had, virtually, to be carried. Hoss was quietly accepting the guidance of the man who had grabbed his arm, doing his best to avoid drawing attention to the fact that the ropes binding his arms were loosening and waiting for the moment when he could best take advantage of that fact.

Ben sensed the warmth of the afternoon sun through the fabric of the hood that blinded him. The groans of his oldest and youngest sons as they were lifted onto horses caused a pang of pain at his heart. Then he felt himself being grasped with rough hands and boosted into a saddle—by the feel of it, his own saddle. There were sounds of horses milling about restlessly and muffled shouts between Pike and his men. And then his horse was being pulled forward, moving off in an unknown direction. As the procession made its way toward he knew not where, Ben found his thoughts turning to the man who was threatening his family with a dire fate, and the events that had taken place so many years ago.

When the wagon train heading to California reached the area around Lake Tahoe there were several families that decided to stay and make their homes in that region. Ben Cartwright with his two young sons was among them. And so was Norman Pike with his wife, Helen, and his son, Nathaniel. The families were friends, with Ben and Norman helping each other to construct the first cabins on their respective plots of land and to clear each other’s fields. Adam Cartwright and Nathaniel Pike were both hard-working helpers to their fathers and close companions during their free hours.

One day the two families were working together to bring down from the high country a load of timber that was to be used for fencing, and Ben was driving the wagon with two-year-old Hoss in the seat beside him. Ben would normally have left the child with Mrs. Pike rather than take him along on this sort of expedition, but she was ill that day and there was no one else to look after him. Adam and Nathaniel sat together on the logs in the back of the wagon, chatting happily. Norman followed them on his horse. The weather had been rainy and the path was muddy – and more treacherous than Ben had realized. They were about halfway down the slope when Ben heard an ominous rumbling and looked up to see the beginning of a rock slide that threatened to tumble down on them.

He urged the horses pulling the wagon to their fastest pace, desperately hoping to escape the onslaught. They managed to avoid being struck by the rocks, but the horses were going too fast to safely take the curve in the path that suddenly loomed ahead of them, and they came perilously close to the edge. Ben felt the ground giving way under them and the wheel of the wagon slipped over the edge. The wagon lurched and hung there suspended precariously half on and half off the path. The next few minutes were somewhat cloudy and confused in Ben’s memory, but one thing was all too clear. Nathaniel Pike had been thrown from the wagon and tumbled down the slope—to his death. Adam had barely managed to catch onto the side of the wagon and avoid following after him. The agonizingly difficult effort to get himself, Hoss and Adam off the wagon before it slid off the path altogether and crashed onto some boulders below had given Ben some of the most frightening moments of his life. But that was not the end of it.

Ben would never forget the look on Norman’s face when they eventually found the body of his son. It was the crazed look of a man passing beyond grief into madness. Neither Norman nor his wife really recovered from the loss of their only child. Mrs. Pike died less than a year later, and the doctor attributed her death to a broken heart. That only added to Norman’s grief, and he turned to self-destructive behavior, including drinking. His small spread fell into ruin and he eventually was reduced to resorting to criminal activity in order to survive. Ben had looked on in dismay as his friend’s life spiraled downward, but he had been unable to do anything to halt it. Every offer of help was met with an angry refusal. Norman blamed Ben Cartwright for the death of his son, and he had frequently been heard to mutter that one day Ben would be made to pay for it. Eventually Norman was caught rustling cattle and sentenced to a long prison term. He was lucky not to have been hanged. How many years ago had that been? Ben didn’t quite remember. Ben had put away the name of Norman Pike and the painful memories associated with it in an obscure corner of his mind—until now.

As Ben had been remembering these things, the party had apparently reached its destination. Ben was pulled off his horse and harshly dragged a short distance. Then the hood was removed from his head. Ben blinked several times as his eyes adjusted to the light. Then he glanced around curiously trying to determine where they were. The first thing he saw was his three sons, guarded by Pike’s men, standing a little ways away from him. Adam and Joe were both very unsteady on their feet, while Hoss was almost unnaturally still. Close behind them the ground dropped off sharply, forming a steep slope. The site seemed somehow vaguely familiar. Then it came to him, and a chill passed through him as he guessed what Pike must be planning.

Norman came over to stand facing Ben. His eyes showed the same crazed look that Ben had seen there so long ago.

“You recognize this place, Cartwright?” Pike asked him. Ben nodded.

“I thought you might,” Pike continued. “I’ve seen this place in my dreams nearly every night for all these years. I’ve seen my boy, Nathaniel, going over the edge there to his death. Well, today, you are going to see each of your sons go over that edge to his death. Now tell me—which one should I take first?”

Ben recoiled in horror and swayed on his feet. Looking on, Hoss was quietly slipping the loosened ropes off of his arms and preparing for action.

*****

Part Twelve: AdamFan16

“I asked you a question, Cartwright!” Pike exploded, lashing out with a back-handed slap.

Ben rocked back on his heels, still mutely staring at his captor. Surely, surely Norman wouldn’t do this—he who knew the horror of losing a child. But a look in those bloodshot, triumphant eyes, and Ben knew that was the one argument he dared not use.

“Choose, Cartwright, or so help me I’ll pick them off where they stand.” Norman drew his pistol and motioned his men to the side.

“Do it, Pa.” It was Adam’s husky voice.

Ben shook his head almost mechanically, focusing on the trio of men -– yes, he could not call them boys now. Adam locked gazes with him, and behind the cloud of pain his father saw that iron-clad stubbornness.

“Choose me, Pa.” Adam said quietly.

Joe started and cast an incredulous look at his brother. Hoss still stood motionless, but his eyes flitted from his father to Adam and back again.

“No, no.” Ben barely heard the anguished whisper, but he recognized the voice as his own, “I can’t…”

Pike smiled a slow, sadistic smile that turned Ben’s already roiling stomach. “You will, or you’ll see them beaten within an inch of their lives before we send them over the cliff.”

“Do it, Pa.” Adam desperately insisted again. Joe’s eyes were boring into him.

“Don’t be a fool, Adam. It won’t matter which one he chooses first.” Joe stepped closer, “This isn’t the time to try and be a hero.”

Without turning his head, Adam muttered, “If they’re distracted with me, you three can get the jump on them.”

Hoss’ strangely calm voice broke over the group, “Choose me, Pa.”

Ben blinked, his attention shifting to his middle son, “Hoss?”

Hoss nodded slowly. His eyes met Ben’s; shockingly clear in comparison to the cloud that cloaked his brothers—and his father. He had never seen Pa so completely lost.

“Pa, trust me.”

“You’d better hurry, Cartwright.” Pike’s pleased voice interjected, “My patience is running thin.”

Adam started to protest, but something in Hoss’ face gave him pause. His younger brother definitely had an ace up his sleeve.

Ben numbly shook his head again. Hoss gritted his teeth, Pa simply had to understand.

“Pa.” The authorative ring in the deep voice startled the rest of his family, “Choose me.”

*****

Part Thirteen: Arien

The words of his oldest brother rang in Joe’s mind. ‘If they’re distracted with me, you three can get the jump on them.’ Joe knew he would be little use to any of them in a fight. His ribs were broken, there was no denying it. He could barely draw in enough air and was sure one of the ribs had to be pressing against his lung.  He also lacked the peripheral vision that would be needed in a fight—his right eye had finally swollen shut from earlier blows. He was honest enough to admit that he would be the first to be picked off in a scuffle. Joe recognized, of the four Cartwrights, his father and two brothers were the most able to succeed in getting away.

Dimly, he could hear the din of his family and Pike arguing over who was to be chosen—the loud voices and heated words. The anguish in his father’s words as he was told to choose which son was to die first.

“Pa, choose me,” Hoss’ voiced sounded from his blind side. He had rarely heard his brother use that tone of voice. It spoke of authority and cut through the blood roaring in his ears.

“Pa,” Joe gasped, trying to gain his father’s attention. He wasn’t sure if his father could hear him over the other voices. “Pa, please—pick me.”

His father’s fear-filled eyes finally glanced in his direction and it made his heart constrict in compassion. Joe could plainly see the turmoil that wracked his father.

From his right, Hoss’ voice said, “Pa, I’m telling ya—pick me!

“Please, let me be the one,” Adam’s weak voice sounded from his left. Joe could see the pain and fever etched into the face of his oldest brother.

He could also see the sadistic pleasure on the face of the man holding Adam upright.

“I can’t! God, help me!” his father’s gasped words cut through the ensuing silence. “I can’t choose a son…”

“But I can,” Joe heard himself saying. He was glad to be taking the choice from his father’s shoulders. He knew too much pain already resided in his pa’s heart, and he was determined to take this torment from him. “Forgive me, Pa. Forgive me.”

With a final look at Pa’s chalk-white face, Joe took the final step back towards the edge of the precipice. And, for a moment in time, he was soaring.

*****

Part Fourteen: Nanuk

For a second, there was nothing.

Ben didn’t hear the cry that broke free from his throat, didn’t feel hands like steel hold painfully onto his arms. He had seen the decision on his youngest son’s face, had seen the blood drain slowly from the beloved face and had felt the pain soar in his heart until he thought he must surely die because he couldn’t stand it any longer.

And then, there was a blur moving in front of his eyes, a big tan colored blur that blocked his sight, moving downward—and surely—surely…Hoss wouldn’t—wouldn’t …

Knees giving away, Ben sank to the ground, but his eyes stayed glued to the scene in front of him. Men were crowing at the edge, shouting, pushing…there were blots of color everywhere—brown, gray, blue—and only when he squinted his eyes did the image clear.

Hoss lay on the ground, full length, his arms over the ridge, and Ben could see his shoulders were strained with effort. Adam had sunken to the ground as well, shivering all over, but around them men milled about, kneeling, hauling, and then there suddenly was another blot to mix with the others—green to mix with black and brown—and Ben closed his eyes when he realized what had happened.

Then a shadow fell over him, the sudden absence of light cold and bitter on his skin, and Ben opened his eyes to see Pike glaring down on him.

“How did that feel?” He bared his teeth in a cynical grin, and then squatted down next to Ben. His breath went over Ben’s cheek and it was all he could do to not avert his face. He wouldn’t give Pike the benefit of an answer. “Did you feel like your heart was being ripped out of your body? That your skin was being torn from you, your soul and blood sucked out?”

But Pike had gotten up again, and his eyes welled over with hate. His face contorted when he spoke, and the words stole the breath from Ben’s lungs and left him suffocating.

“Enjoy the moment, Ben, my old friend, because that has just been the beginning.”

Turning, Pike kicked Joe’s ribs, and then peered at the bruise-discolored face. “You almost spoiled my plan, but that won’t happen again.” He turned back to his men, and then motioned towards Adam who was kneeling in the dust beside his brothers, swaying with fever.

“Take him. Prepare the others.”

There was nothing Ben could do. The fingers on his arms tore into his flesh, a weapon bored into his back.

Men grabbed Adam’s arms and hauled him up, a limp body between them, taking him away. Others bound Hoss while leaving Joe free of restraints, their weapons trained on his sons’ bodies.

Ben was left on the ground, and all he could do was watch.

*****

Part Fifteen: dbird

Ben watched in helpless rage as Adam was carried away by two of the men. Another two came on either side of Joe, practically dragging him along. Hoss trudged behind them reluctantly, being prodded by a gun. They disappeared around the bend in the direction they had come. The sun was beginning to dip behind the western ridge – it would be dark soon.

Left alone with Pike and with his fears, Ben Cartwright silently said a desperate prayer for his sons.

*****

Joe squinted in the waning light. Even the dismal glow seemed to bother his eyes and made him want to shut them tight again. Every bit of his body ached with some kind of pain, and part of him wanted to give in to it. A low moan next to him convinced him otherwise, and he struggled to turn his head.

Adam lay nearby, his cheeks still flushed with rising fever. Joe tried to move his arms and was surprised to find them unbound. Pike’s men must have figured he wasn’t worth tying up. They pretty much figured right. He wasn’t sure he could lift his head up off the ground let alone find a way to help his brother.

Again, Adam moaned and tossed his head in his fevered dream. Joe thought it a bittersweet blessing that his brother was able to steal an uneasy rest. He reached out to touch Adam’s cheek, to reassure himself that things could be all right, and was surprised by a sharp nudge at his hip. He painfully rolled over to find Hoss propped next to him, shaking his head ever so slightly.

“Stop moving, boy,” he whispered. “They’ll tie you up again if they see you.”

Ignoring Hoss’ admonition not to move, Joe lifted his chin and saw a few of the men half dozing on the cot. In the yellowed light cast by the oil lamp, they looked jaundiced and ill. In reality, they were probably trying to sleep off their earlier festivities. Joe carefully turned back to Hoss, trying not to attract their attention.

“Pa?” he whispered to his older brother.

“Hasn’t been brought back in yet,” Hoss muttered grimly. “He’s still out there with that… monster. I’ll tell you, Joe, after what he did to you and Adam, I want front row seats at his hanging.”

Joe tried out a tiny grin on his battered face. “If Pa has anything to say about it, there won’t be enough left of Pike to hang by the time this is over. I ain’t never seen him so angry before.”

He spoke a little too loudly, and one of Pike’s men startled and glanced over in their direction. Joe closed his eyes and prayed that it looked like he was sleeping between his brothers. A gentle nudge from Hoss’ knee let him know it was safe to open his eyes again. He looked up at Hoss who nodded at him approvingly.

“That’s it, little brother,” he whispered. “It won’t do to show them how strong we really are. No playing hero, Short Shanks. Adam and Pa need us to use our heads.”

“I don’t feel much like a hero,” Joe replied, feeling the reality of their situation starting to worry its way into his mind. “Adam’s hurt real bad, Hoss… This doesn’t look good. I don’t know how this is going to turn out.”

“Now you hush up with that kind of talk,” Hoss hissed at him.

Joe glanced at his big brother in surprise. Hoss almost never used that sharp tone with him, especially when he was so badly hurt.

But Hoss lowered his voice and continued. “Now you listen here. You’re a Cartwright, same as Adam and Pa and me. Pike and his men…they don’t know nothing about us. They think they can hurt us and make us curl up and want to die. We don’t give up that easy. You can’t let men like that scare you, Little Joe. We ain’t licked yet, and I don’t want to hear nothing like that coming out of you, boy.”

Joe frowned, mulling over his brother’s speech, and then glanced over at his captors. To his surprise, they were already asleep.

“They’re sleeping,” he whispered to his brother. “You and me could take them easy. We could haul Adam out of here and go save Pa.”

Hoss smiled affectionately at his little brother, not missing the fact that the kid could hardly move, let alone rally to save the day. Despite the fact that Little Joe’s eyes were practically swollen shut Hoss could see the sparkle in them again. It wasn’t much, but it was something. Battles had been waged with less.

“They’ve got guards posted outside,” Hoss told him. “So we’ll have to come up with another idea. But, little brother, there’s one thing I know for sure. Men like that never win over men like us. It’s just a matter of time before they let their guard down. You gonna be ready when that happens?”

“Just tell me when,” Joe said, and a faint smile drifted across his face before he closed his eyes.

*****

Part Sixteen: Grimesgirl

Joe was startled back to awareness by the slam of the opening door. Pike barreled into the room and taking in the sleeping ‘guards’ roared a “Wake up you lazy no-accounts. You’re supposed to be keeping an eye on these three, not sleeping.” His angry words were accompanied by several swift kicks. The men quickly came awake and looked uneasily at their boss.

Hoss saw that Joe was once again conscious and gave a small smile to his little brother. Turning his eyes toward his oldest brother, Hoss was surprised to see the fever ridden hazel eyes were partially open, though it wasn’t clear if Adam was aware or not.

When Adam’s eyes moved in his direction, he knew that Adam was going to try something. He also knew that Adam was too weak to put up much of a fight. Shucks, he couldn’t protect himself, let alone try to free him and get Joe on his feet.

Pike turned and swept his hateful gaze across the three brothers. An evil smile crossed his face when he saw that Adam’s eyes were open. He crossed the room in two long strides and grabbed the oldest son by his arm.

Adam bit back a cry and tried to pull away.

“Oh, no, you don’t, we’re gonna have a little fun, big shot. Your pa is waiting outside and you and me is gonna go out and join him.” With that remark, Pike dragged Adam through the door, leaving it open behind him.

“Hoss, what are they going to do to Adam?” Joe asked, voice unsteady with worry.

“Don’t know little brother, but there ain’t a whole lot we can do about it just now. We’re kinda helpless now that the guards are awake. We just gotta watch and if we see a chance try to take a couple of them down and get their guns.”

Outside, Ben looked on in dread as Adam was pulled toward him.

Pike grinned as he dropped Adam in front of a nearby tree. Searching, he found a length of rope in a saddlebag and bent to tie the injured man’s hands together in front of him. After securing Adam, he threw a rope over a limb and pulled until the black clad figure barely had his feet on the ground.

Adam groaned and shivered with the pain the stretching caused to his battered body.

Ben knew he shouldn’t beg. He’d rarely had the need to do so in his life, but he couldn’t just lay here and let his son be tortured. “Pike,” he called. Pike barely glanced at him. His tormentor was busy digging through his saddlebags. Ben tried to see through the gathering darkness. What was he hunting for?

Suddenly he realized what Pike held. His heart seemed to stop. No, this couldn’t be happening.

Pike unfurled the whip and slowly began his walk toward Adam.

*****

Part Seventeen: Kaatje

“Pike!”

As he struggled against the strong hands that held him in place, Ben wondered desperately if there were some way to get through to the man he used to know. Some way to reach the Norman Pike who had once existed—the good neighbor and family man. “Norm! Please, you can’t do this! Adam was only a boy when it happened. He was a child, like Nathaniel. Don’t you remember how those boys were? They were inseparable, like brothers.”

Pike turned to glower at him. “Don’t you ever mention my son! You have no right. You killed him, Cartwright, and you’re going to pay now.”

Ben strained again, to no avail. “Pike! If you think someone must pay, it should be me. Don’t hold Adam responsible. He was just a boy, Norm, a nine-year-old boy!” Ben could hear his voice shaking on the last words.

“No, Pa.” Adam’s voice was a hard whisper. “It’s all right.” He slowly lifted his head and managed to look Pike in the eye. In a firmer voice that conveyed his utter contempt, he said, “Nathaniel would be proud.

Ben saw Pike flinch.

*****

Part Eighteen: PRj

Pike stared long and hard at Adam.

Ben wondered if Adam had been able to reach this lost man—an old friend. He tried to understand the reasons why Pike let himself fall into utter despair. When he remembered the man he used to call friend, he would have never thought that Norm Pike would ever get lost to misery. One of Norman’s famous sayings was: “sadness comes with life, but misery is an option.” Ben pictured the smile Pike would give after he would say the quote.

He watched as Pike, dropping the whip and falling to his knees, whispered, “Nathaniel.”

Ben was about to say something when Pike suddenly stood up and headed for Adam. The anger in him returning as he furrowed his brow.

Adam glanced at his father and then closed his eyes. Ben felt his heart sink to his stomach in that instant. To Ben, the world started to move in slow motion, as he watched Pike double his fists, and start to pummel away at his son.

‘My son, is already so badly hurt, how much more can he take?’ Ben thought.

He felt himself flinch, in his own ribs, as he watched Pike land a heavy blow to Adam. Ben pulled against the ropes and heard someone yelling, “STOP!”

Ben looked around for whoever it was that was yelling; he closed his eyes when he figured out, that it was him yelling. Ben sighed, ‘please Lord, be with my family.’ Ben felt a hot breath on his face; he opened his eyes to see Pike, inches away from him.

“How does it feel, Cartwright? How does it feel to watch your son being killed and not able to do anything about it?”

Ben instantly moved his eyes away from Pike and looked around him so he could see Adam. As the word ‘killed,’ echoed through his mind. He felt his heart stop as he looked at Adam’s head, his face was bruised, and his head was hanging loose, down to his chest.

His mind raced as he looked for any sign from his son that he was still alive.

His eyes moved down to Adam’s chest where he could see a wet spot on his black shirt, by Adam’s ribs. ‘Blood,’ his mind screamed out.

“No!” Ben screamed and headbutted Pike.

Pike staggered backward, laughing, “See, Cartwright, you want to hurt the one that hurts your son, don’t you.” He laughed harder, trying to fight off the darkness that ensnared him.

Pike fell to the ground, unconscious.

Ben looked back at Adam as tears welled up in his eyes. He watched his son swing softly with the wind. A movement catching his eye, he looked towards the cabin to see Hoss standing in the doorway.

“Hoss! Hurry, we need to help Adam,” Ben felt a wave of hope wash over him.

Hoss moved from the cabin door, with Joe staggering towards a post for support. Their eyes were pinned on their brother who looked beyond help.

Hoss untied his father with a knife he’d taken from the cabin. They headed towards Adam and reached him the same time Joe did. At first no one could move.

A moan from Pike sent them into action.

Hoss sliced through the rope that held his brother as his father caught him. Adam moaned slightly at the fall. They all looked at each other as life spread across their faces in the form of relieved smiles.

“We better get away from here quickly,” Ben said. “Pike sent some of his men away, but they should be back soon. I don’t want to get caught again. We’ll deal with Norman, after we get Adam some help—you too Joseph.”

Joe nodded and half smiled at his father, feeling sluggish, but reassured that everything was going to workout alright.

Hoss turned and led the way towards the line where the horses were tied.

Pike opened an eye slowly, peeking out his eyelid. His lips twitched in a wicked smile. “My plan is working out perfectly. You won’t get far with Adam in the shape he’s in.”

*****

Part Nineteen: Arien

Ben was desperate to get his sons to safety. The man Norman Pike had once been clearly no longer existed. The crazed look in the other man’s eyes would haunt his dreams long after this ordeal was over.

“Hoss, help me get Adam on Chubb. You can ride double with him for a while. We’ll trade out once the horse gets too tired,” Ben said, glancing around to make sure no one would interfere with their escape. “I’ll ride close to Joe in case he needs help.”

Hoss and his father gently lifted the unconscious form onto the horse. With his pa’s hands holding Adam securely in the saddle, he mounted and looked down at his father. “I got ‘im, Pa. You can let go now. I’ll call ya when I need to trade off. You go check on Joe.”

“See, Cartwright, you want to hurt the one that hurts your son, don’t you.” The laughing face and taunting words danced through his mind as Ben crossed to his youngest son. Of course he wanted to hurt the men responsible—this wasn’t an accident. This was deliberate torture…both mentally and physically. He could see shadows in Joe’s eyes that hadn’t been there before and was sure the same look was on each of their faces.

“We’ll be all right, Pa,” Joe whispered, as he tried to reassure his father. He could see the haunted look in the chocolate depths and wanted to ease the burden his father carried but could think of nothing but trite reassurances.

“Yes, Joseph, I’m sure we’ll be all right—once we get you and your brother to a doctor, that is,” Ben stated, moving to mount his own horse. He grabbed the reins of Sport and turned Buck in the same direction that his sons were facing. “We’ll follow you out, Hoss, since there’s only one way off this part of the mountain. I didn’t exactly get a good sense of where I was going the first time.”

Hoss nodded and tightened his grip on his brother. He could feel the heat rolling off Adam in waves and, as of yet, his brother hadn’t so much as twitched. Saying a silent prayer for his family, he nudged his horse forward.

He wasn’t a violent man by nature…always being slow to anger. This day his anger had been riled at the beatings his brothers were given and the choice his father had been forced to make. ‘Like he was having to choose to throw away his favorite pair of boots or something,’ Hoss thought in disgust. He didn’t think he would ever forget the heart-stopping fear that had ripped through him at the sight of Joe taking that final step off of the cliff—and for no other reason than to keep his father from making a choice as to who lived or died.  He was grateful that he had been able to get the bindings off of his wrists…he didn’t want to contemplate what would have happened otherwise.

Leading his father and younger brother down the steep mountain, Hoss had a lot of time to think about Norman Pike. He had been such a small child that he had no conscious memory of the events that led to the death of Nathaniel. He remembered his father being a bit anxious every time they had to go near that pass, but he hadn’t thought much of it at the time. Now, however, Hoss realized the significance of the place.

As Ben followed Hoss out of their prison, he was at an angle to see the emotions playing across his son’s face: anger, resolve, hurt, and determination. He was grateful Hoss hadn’t been injured as well. He couldn’t choose which son would die much less which son should live. It was a choice no parent should ever have to make, and the near disaster on the cliff made his stomach clench. The moment when he thought Pike had killed Adam was a pain that went beyond words.

Glancing back, he saw the look of utter weariness that settled on Joe’s disfigured face. The right eye was completely shut and the left was only open about half way. Blood was smeared near Joe’s mouth from a split in his lip with various cuts and bruises adding to the overall look of defeat on the young man’s features. His whole body was slumped in weariness and seemed to barely be staying in the saddle. Ben’s heart swelled when Joe, realizing he was being watched, suddenly sat up straighter and his face lost the of look defeat.

“I’m fine, Pa,” Joe said, smiling and meeting his father’s gaze. “We’ll get Adam to the doctor soon, you’ll see.”

Joe had never felt this kind of weariness before and longed to be home in his bed. He was determined to keep his father from worrying too much—Adam was in much worse shape than he was. As far as he knew, his oldest brother hadn’t been conscious yet. Time had lost all meaning—it seemed as though they had been riding forever. He watched a sad smile pass across his father’s face and prayed they would get his brother the much needed medical attention.

The traveling was slow going given the condition of Adam. Joe mused they must have traveled a third of the way down and were well into the tree line when the sound of snapping twigs caused him to turn quickly to his left. Out of the shadows, a familiar sight greeted him: Norman Pike and his so-called friends. Joe felt his heart sink at the implication. He had the distinct feeling that Pike had been playing along in letting them think that they were escaping.

“You didn’t think it would be this easy, now did you?” Pike sneered at the men before him. It gave him a sense of satisfaction to see the color drain from the Cartwrights’ faces. He had enjoyed this little game of cat and mouse. He was looking forward to the games to come.

“Pike, let my sons go. Please, I’m begging you, let them go!” Ben said, desperation clear in his voice. “I’m the one you want. They’ve done nothing to you.”

“They existed—that’s all they had to do. My son died while your sons thrived,” Pike said as though this should be obvious to anyone. “Get off the horses. Now.”

Slowly, Ben did as was instructed. He moved to help Hoss but the sound of a hammer being pulled back stopped him in his tracks. “Pike, what are you going to do?”

“Well, Ben-boy, I feel like doin’ some huntin’. It’s such a great area for it an’ all,” the other man said after a moment. “Yes sir, I think I’m goin’ huntin’—for a Cartwright. The way I see it, that youngest of yours will be the first to go.”

Ben’s gasped “No!” was lost in Pike’s cruel laughter. His heart sank at the thought of Joe being chased like a wild animal.

“Tie ‘em up,” Pike ordered and watched as his men did his bidding, “even the unconscious one.”

Ben’s mind raced but no answer was forthcoming. As he watched Joe, he saw a look of desperate determination pass across the beloved face. He knew his son would do his best to evade the crazed men, but he feared that Joe’s best wouldn’t be enough. Again, he felt nausea rolling through his stomach. He couldn’t bring himself to look at Hoss—he knew the same misery in his heart would be reflected in the other’s eyes.

Meeting Joe’s gaze, he whispered, “I’m sorry, Joseph. I’m so sorry.”

Before Joe could answer, a shove from behind sent him stumbling.

“Get goin’. I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to my son…you’ll not have that chance either,” Pike said, his voice cold and emotionless.

With a final look at his father, Joe slowly made his way down the mountain. He wasn’t sure how much time he had before Pike and his men caught up with him.  He could feel the fever he had been fighting start to rise again. He knew he would be an easy target in the shape he was in but was determined to make it as difficult as possible. His breath seemed to come in shallow gasps and was accompanied by a stab of pain from his ribs. Instinctively, he wrapped his arm around his middle to help protect the damaged bones.

As Joe made his way towards a patch of undergrowth, his mind was whirling with possibilities. He kept trying to figure out a way to get help to his family but, so far, nothing seemed apparent. He was trying to think past the pain but didn’t seem to be doing so well in that area. He settled for doing the best he could—he just prayed that it would be enough.

Feeling his feet slip on the loose leaves in a moment of inattentiveness, Joe threw his arm out to stop the fall. As a searing pain shot through his chest, he heard the rapport of a rifle nearby and laughter he recognized.

The last thing he saw, before the darkness closed in, was the gloating face of Norman Pike.

*****

Ben had been propped up next to a felled tree after Joe had been ordered to run. Hoss was to his right and Adam to his left. His oldest son had barely stirred when Pike’s men had roughly bound his hands. He was growing more concerned at the lack of response from his son. ‘Surely he should be awake by now,’ he thought to himself. He wasn’t sure as to how much time had passed in the perpetual twilight of the forest.

He turned his gaze from Adam and focused on the forest before him. Ben worried how his youngest son was faring in Norman’s sick game of cat and mouse. He knew Joe wasn’t in any condition to do well. He was scared, even if he only admitted it to himself, as to what condition his son would be in when Norman returned.

The sound of sickened laughter announced the return of the “hunting” party. Ben looked frantically but saw no sign of Joe. Pike approached him with an air of a man well satisfied.

The other man tossed something in front of Ben and, after a moment of reflection, said, “One down, two to go.”

“Where is he?” Ben demanded, voice roughened by grief. He felt his heart constrict in pain and found it difficult to breathe past the lump that had formed in his throat.

His vision began to blur as he recognized the bloody remains of Joe’s green jacket.

*****

Part Twenty: Nanuk

When Ben finally found the energy to raise his eyes and look up through the haze that was clouding his mind and soul, Pike was still in front of him. Hands stemmed into his sides, he looked down on the miserable group in front of him, but the look on his face had changed. There was a hint of thoughtfulness there that Ben was stunned to recognize, but his heart gave a start when he followed Pike’s gaze.

Beside him, Ben felt Hoss move, felt his middle son’s silent protest inside himself as he watched Pike kneel down next to Adam and lay a hand on his son’s chest. Everything inside him cried out in protest, and the bitter taste of bile rose into his throat, making him choke. Still, Ben didn’t dare to move, didn’t dare to do anything that could have provoked another bout of anger.

But Pike’s hand was on Adam’s chest, checking for a heart beat. Ben’s palms were prickling, longing to do the same, check for himself that his son was still with them. There was nothing he could do but watch the beloved face, watch faint movement at Adam’s neck and feel the heat coming from his son’s body.

Then Adam suddenly moved his head and coughed; a low, painful sound that ripped into Ben and made him clench his fists. But Pike just stared at Adam, watched as he weakly tried to lift his head, and when he heard the faint whisper of “Pa” on his breath, Pike’s eyes glazed over and he smiled.

Ben felt the waves of contempt rolling over him when he saw their tormentor’s lips move and heard the word he spoke:

“Nathaniel.”

*****

When Joe woke, it was to the prodding of a gun in his side. Gasping with the pain that hit him when he tried to move, he nevertheless managed to raise himself on hands and knees on the wooden floor. Staring up at his guard through the stars dancing through his vision and trying to ignore the growing puddle of blood under his hands, there was only one thought foremost in his mind.

Unfortunately, he was still alive.

*****

Part Twenty-One: GrimesGirl

Ben watched in horror as Pike lifted Adam into his arms. He gently pulled him close and started to rock him as though he was a young child.

“Nathaniel. Shhh, son, shhh. Everything’s fine. Papa’s here,” he crooned.

Ben’s skin crawled to see his oldest being held by this madman. He could feel Hoss shift beside him. He glanced his way and saw the disgust and anger written clearly on the expressive features. Hoss looked at his father and started to shift toward Adam. Ben quickly shook his head. He didn’t think this was the proper time to make any move. They were both still bound and a quick movement might just lead to Adam being injured further. Who knew what Pike would do if he thought someone was trying to reach the one that he, at the moment, thought was his son?

“Norman,” Ben called in a low voice. “Why don’t you let me help you with Nathaniel. Maybe I can do something to relieve his pain.”

Pike raised unfocused eyes toward Ben. After a long moment his gaze seemed to waver and he looked at the body held close against his chest.

“No, I’ll take care of my boy. I don’t need nobody’s help.”

Ben tried again, “Norman, I know you want to, but maybe I can do something you can’t.”

Pike’s voice started to rise. “I told you, no.” Suddenly he seemed to come back to reality and, seeing it was Cartwright that was speaking, looked down at Adam. As it hit him who he was holding, he roughly pushed the body away from him and rising swiftly again drew back his heavy boot and kicked Adam several times before withdrawing to stand with his back to the three men, his breath coming in deep gulps.

Ben tried to see Adam’s condition, but the kicks had turned his body so that his back was to Ben and he couldn’t make out how much new damage had been done.

Would this horrible time ever end? Joe probably lying dead somewhere, Adam slowing dying, if he was not already dead from the latest assault. He closed his eyes and called on his God to help them all.

*****

Part Twenty-Two: debpet

Joe felt another chill run through him. Weakly, he tried to wrap his arms around himself to suppress his shivering. He could tell that there was still some blood seeping from his wound, though the flow seemed to have slowed. Oh, how he wished he still had his jacket! He leaned his head back against the wall behind him and closed his eyes. Given what they had learned about Norman Pike this day Joe was almost certain that Pike had displayed the bloodied garment before his father’s eyes, and the thought of the pain that must have caused made Joe wince in sympathy. Then he thought of his oldest brother, wondered if he was still alive and winced again.

Joe felt the weakness and fatigue threatening to overtake him, and he fought to avoid losing consciousness, fearing that if he did, he might never come out of it. Shaking his head he tried to concentrate on identifying where he was, but in the dim light nothing about the place seemed familiar. He could barely see the figure of the man who had been left to guard him, standing silently in the doorway, holding a rifle.

Hearing Joe moan, the man came over and knelt down next to him. Struggling to focus, Joe made out a thin, pale face with a stubble of beard and a pair of dark eyes that reminded him of his oldest brother.  Those eyes stared at him with an expression that he couldn’t quite fathom.

“Not feelin’ so good, eh, boy?” the man said in a mocking voice.

“What do you think?” Joe gasped out painfully. “Who are you anyway? And what are you doing with Norman Pike? Can’t you see he’s crazy?”

The man’s eyes narrowed. “My name’s Dan Hagge, if that means anything to you. As for Pike, well, I owe him for the way he looked out for me in prison. Maybe he is a little over the edge, but he’s got his reasons, and you’d best not be makin’ light of them if you want to stay alive.”

Joe returned his gaze steadily. “I can’t figure out why I’m still alive now. Why didn’t Pike just kill me when he had the chance?”

Hagge grinned menacingly. “Guess he just likes stringin’ your pa along. Makin’ him think you’re dead, then later showin’ him you’re alive, only to kill you in front of his eyes. That’s what I’m guessin’ anyway.”

Joe closed his eyes again and held down the sob that threatened to rise from his wounded chest into his throat. What kind of monsters had they fallen among? And what was Pike doing to his father and brothers now?

*****

Ben kept his eyes on Pike as the man continued to stand there with his back toward them. At this point Ben was almost beyond feeling. If the jacket Pike had shown him was to be believed, Joe had been shot and was almost certainly dead. Adam was lying close by but frustratingly out of reach, brutally beaten, and perhaps dying even now with his father unable to offer any help or comfort. And Hoss was sitting there with his head bowed, his whole manner expressing pain and grief over what was happening to his family. How much more could Pike possibly do to them?

Abruptly Pike turned and strode back toward Ben, the mad gleam in his eyes more disturbing than ever.

“All right, Cartwright,” he said in a voice infused with rage and pain. “There’s only one way to stop the dreams, the visions in my head. I’ve put it off too long. It’s time to put an end to this!” His hand trembling, he drew a gun from his belt. He glanced from Adam to Ben to Hoss, apparently trying to make up his mind. Slowly, he began to raise the hand that held the weapon.

*****

The four men stood together looking down at the marks in the trail. After a moment they looked up and exchanged a look of grim concern. One of them was an aging man with short graying hair and a mustache. The fading light glinted off of the star that adorned his vest. Another was a short man of Oriental appearance who wore his hair braided down his back.

They were here because of a letter that had come into the sheriff’s office in Virginia City earlier in the day. It was a letter from the warden of the prison in Butlerville, belatedly notifying the sheriff of the release of a prisoner named Norman Pike who had completed his sentence for cattle rustling. The notification was being made because the prisoner had been heard to make threatening remarks against a citizen who lived within the sheriff’s jurisdiction—a citizen named Ben Cartwright. It was also known that, prior to his release, the prisoner had written to a number of men who had been in prison with him who had been freed previously. The sheriff was advised to keep a watchful eye on the activities of the said Norman Pike.

On receiving this letter Sheriff Roy Coffee decided to ride out to the Ponderosa and talk to Ben about the matter personally. When he arrived there he found that none of the Cartwrights were at home, and their faithful housekeeper, Hop Sing, was in a state of agitation over the fact. It seemed that Adam, Hoss, and Joe had not returned home as scheduled from a hunting expedition. Normally this would not have been a matter of great concern, since it was not uncommon for them to take longer than planned for such an expedition. But this occasion was different. The housekeeper pointed excitedly to the twenty horses that were milling around in the corral. These horses were ready to be turned over to the army, and Ben planned to set out in the morning to deliver them to FortChurchill. According to the Oriental man, Ben had been on his way into town the day before to collect the mail and had been planning on eating supper in town – the problem was the eldest Cartwright had never returned home. In light of those plans, Hop Sing believed the Cartwrights would have made sure to return on time—unless they had run into some sort of trouble

Roy was inclined to agree with his assessment. He decided to try and track down the Cartwrights, just in case. The other man insisted on going along. His instincts were telling him that something was seriously wrong and that the family might need him. Roy had considerable respect for Hop Sing’s instincts and he was happy to have his company. A couple of the Ponderosa hands who were known to be good trackers were recruited to join the party.

Hop Sing knew where the Cartwrights had intended to go for their hunting, so the four men set off quickly in that direction. Eventually they reached the cabin where the housekeeper believed the Cartwright might have planned to make a stop. And what they found there was troubling. There were signs of a struggle in the cabin and traces of many horses in the ground outside. They picked up the trail that led away from the cabin and followed it until they reached a place which was the top of a steep drop-off. Here also there were signs of some kind of struggle. Convinced now that there was indeed trouble afoot, they pressed on, following a trail that was becoming more difficult to read as the day’s light began to fade.

Now they had come to a spot where it was necessary to get down from their horses to examine the ground more closely. One of the hands finally picked up the tracks, heading off of the main path and into the woods. They followed them for some distance on foot, leading their horses behind them. And then, Roy Coffee raised his hand, bringing the party to a halt. He had caught the sound of voices somewhere ahead of them. Carefully they moved forward between the trees, making as little noise as possible. The voices grew louder, and Roy could have sworn that one of them belonged to Ben Cartwright. They came upon a clearing, and took their places behind the trees at its edge, peering around the trunks to see what was happening.

There sat Ben Cartwright, bound and disheveled, with his son Hoss sitting close to him. A short distance away Adam Cartwright lay on his side, not moving and evidently badly injured—or worse. And there was another man there, a formidable looking man of threatening appearance. Roy did not immediately recognize the man, but there was something vaguely familiar about him, and the suspicion quickly entered his mind that this could be Norman Pike himself. A thrill of fear passed through Roy as he saw the man draw a weapon from his belt, glance at each of the Cartwrights in turn, and then slowly raise his arm—to point the gun directly at Ben Cartwright.

*****

Part Twenty-Three: AdamFan16

A click behind him sent Roy whirling around. Frank, one of the hands, had drawn and was taking careful aim at the man standing over Ben.

“You put that thing away, Frank.” Roy whispered fiercely.

“Ain’t you gonna do anything, Sheriff? ’Cause if you won’t, I reckon Georgie and me can take ’em.” Frank stepped closer, gun still trained on the man.

“If you pull that trigger, you’ll be signin’ Ben Cartwright’s death warrant, an’ probably the rest of the Cartwrights too.” Roy reached over and jerked the gun from Frank’s hand, “That man don’t look too steady on his feet. Just cool off for a minute and let’s look for a way to take ’em. Understand?”

Frank, wincing beneath the lash of Roy’s words, merely nodded.

“Sheriff.” It was Hop Sing’s worried whisper. “I think you betta find way quick.”

Roy uncocked the pistol and handed it back to Frank, his eyes already back on the scene unfolding in the clearing.

*****

“On your feet, Cartwright,” Pike demanded.

Ben pushed himself up on his elbow, the ropes burning a path of fire across his wrists. He looked up at his captor with ill-disguised contempt, “That would be a little difficult seeing as how you have me hog-tied like this!”

Pike smirked, motioning with his pistol to one of his men. The man grabbed Ben’s arm and hoisted him to a standing position, snarling, “Next time you talk to the boss like that will be the last time you talk at all.”

Ben squared his aching shoulders and faced Pike, “Go ahead, Norman, pull the trigger. You’ve already taken a son from me.” His brows knit for a moment as an image of Joe’s laughing face welled up. The young man had had such a zest for life—”Are you satisfied, Pike?”

“Not quite, Ben.” Pike nodded to his crony.

A hunting knife flashed in the dusky light, and a slow smile came from the man who wielded it.

“Hurry up, Jesse, I’m an impatient man.” Pike’s reprimand ended with an inexplicable chuckle.

Ben braced himself as Jesse approached, his eyes connecting with Hoss, who was silently struggling to free himself. He shook his head ever so slightly; there was no need for Hoss to risk himself for him. At least one of his sons might survive this horrid cat and mouse game.

The knife rose—and slashed through the ropes around Ben’s wrists.

“Now, untie those leg bonds.” Pike ordered, his gun still trained on Ben’s head. Ben obeyed, wondering what this madman had in mind this time.

“Now I’m going to give you the chance I never had. Go to Adam, comfort him if you can.” Pike’s superior smile was gone, “Jesse, get Ben some water and a clean rag. Take your opportunity, Ben, see if you can bring him back.”

Ben stood frozen with the magnitude of what Pike had just done – and suspicions as to why he had.

“GO! Or I might change my mind.” Pike motioned furiously with his pistol.

Ben stumbled over to Adam on unsteady legs. He collapsed by his son, “Adam?” he whispered softly. The slightest hint of a breath escaped the battered body, “Hold on, son, I’m here.”

A canteen and a handkerchief were dropped beside him, “Not that those’ll help much, but you’re welcome to ’em.” Jesse shrugged and walked away.

With fingers clumsy with joy, Ben untied the cruel knots binding his son. He unbuttoned the tattered shirt, wincing at the massive bruising across Adam’s abdomen. The wet handkerchief carefully touched the abrasions across his face, gently prodded to check for broken ribs. Ben took a clean corner and held the dripping end to Adam’s parched, swollen lips, all the while keeping up a murmuring stream of endearments he hadn’t used since Adam was a toddler. A reminiscent smile touched his lips as he wondered what his son would think if he could hear them being used now.

“Enough, Ben.” the now-familiar click of Pike’s pistol halted Ben’s ministrations, “You’ve had your chance.”

Ben turned, unsure of the new tone that had entered Norman’s voice. Norman cocked his head at Jesse, who kicked a pistol toward Ben.

“Now, you’re gonna’ reach for that pistol, and you’re going to be the one to pull the trigger on your son. Remember, Ben, I’ve got the drop on you. And even if you did manage to shoot me, my men are still here.”

Ben dropped the handkerchief in horror, “Pike, you can’t mean that.”

“You get that gun, Cartwright, and you do as I say or—” Pike stopped suddenly, “or I’ll beat both your sons to death right before your eyes.”

Both your sons. The words rang hideously in Ben’s ears. Joe was already dead. He looked down at Adam, who hadn’t responded in the slightest to Ben’s care. Perhaps it would be better if he was kindly put out of his misery, rather than being made to suffer who knew how long before the end came. He looked at Hoss, the only one who had a fighting chance, who wouldn’t if Ben disobeyed.

“Pa,” Hoss shook his head, “Don’t you worry none about me.”

Ben reached for the pistol, the cool metal warming to his touch. Pike stepped closer, the barrel of his gun brushing Ben’s ear.

“Now, Ben, pull the trigger.”

*****

Part Twenty-Four: Arien

Roy realized time was very short—he needed a plan, quickly. Turning, Roy motioned to the three men behind him.

“Listen, we don’t have a lot of time. Hop Sing, do you think you can provide a distraction—get Pike and his men’s attention?” Roy asked, his voice barely above a whisper. “I want you to make as much noise as possible—rattle leaves, holler, whatever you have to do to get their attention without putting yourself in harm’s way. All right?”

“This, Hop Sing, can do,” the Oriental man answered with confidence. “You no hear about Hop Sing rescue Cartwrights on Barbary Coast?”

Smiling, the sheriff said, “I do seem to recall Ben mentioning something about that. When I give the signal, I want you to go over to that fallen long—the big one. It should give you plenty of cover once the shooting starts—”

Hop Sing nodded his understanding.

“Good. Frank, George…you’ll follow me in the opposite direction from Hop Sing.  We’ll, only get one shot at this, understand me? When Pike and his men turn towards the noise, we’ll have to shoot ‘em and pray we get ‘em the first shot. I’ll go after Pike—you two decide who you’re going after, all right?” Roy asked, watching the determination settle onto the other men’s features. “Remember: aim for the base of their skulls. It’ll keep ‘em from shootin’ anyone else.”

As Roy turned back to the debacle before him, the one he assumed to be Pike motioned for one of the men nearby. His heart in his throat, he saw a knife flashed—Roy was certain he was about to see his friend stabbed to death. He was taken aback as the other man cut the ropes that bound Ben. Watching, he saw Pike motion for Ben to go towards Adam. He watched Ben tend to the unconscious man – which let Roy know that Adam wasn’t dead as he had feared.  He was unsure as to what Pike’s intentions were—until he saw the man put his pistol to Ben’s head.

Taking a deep breath, Roy motioned for Hop Sing to get started for the fallen tree. He made sure the man was well-hidden before motioning for the two men beside him to follow.

*****

“I said pull the trigger,” Pike growled, pushing the barrel of the pistol further into the skin at Ben’s temple.

Ben was distantly aware of what was being said to him. He felt the comforting weight of the pistol in his hand—he just needed a distraction to turn the tables on Pike. He knew in his heart that there was no way he could shoot his own son—for any reason. ‘Please, God! Give me something to work with!’

As if in answer to the silent prayer, an unholy caterwauling sounded behind him and a great deal of rattling brush. Ben felt the gun move from his head as Pike turned to find out what was making that sound. It wasn’t anything he had ever heard before in all his years of living in Nevada.

Suddenly, the sounds of gunfire erupted over the captives. Ben, assuming it was his captors shooting at the unknown animal, was shocked when the sound of thudding sounded nearby. Raising the gun in his hand, he turned to see Pike, Jesse, and the last henchman fall to the ground—blood covering the base of their skulls.

For a moment, Ben sat, looking at the dead men—stunned to believe that he and his two remaining sons had survived the madman before him. Hearing the snap of a branch behind him, Ben turned with the gun raised – fully expecting to see the last three of Pike’s men. To say he was speechless when Roy and two of his ranch hands emerged was an understatement.

“Roy?” Ben gasped, letting the gun fall to his side. He blinked owlishly at the other men as they holstered their gun, not sure if what he was seeing was real or not. He prayed to God that he wasn’t just seeing things.

“Ben, it’s me,” Roy affirmed, moving to crouch in front of his longtime friend. He could see a haunted look in the other man’s eyes. He couldn’t imagine the things Ben and his sons had been forced to endure at the hands of Norman Pike. “Frank, cut Hoss free, would you? And, George, go find Hop Sing and see if he’s all right.”

“Hop Sing?” Ben asked, his mind not quite focusing on the fact that his housekeeper was apparently lurking about as well. He moved over to Adam and checked to see if his son was still alive. After resting his hand on the chest, he felt the reassuring rise and fall of each breath.

“Yep, Hop Sing. He’s the one that alerted me to the fact that something was wrong. I came out to the Ponderosa after receiving a letter from a sheriff in Butlerville. He wrote to let me know Pike had been released from prison and had made threats against you. I wanted to warn you that he was on the loose,” Roy explained to the other man, crouching next to Adam as well. “How many men were there?”

Gathering his scattered wits, Ben answered, “There were eight in all. There was a fourth man around here somewhere—”

“Found him, Mr. Cartwright!” George sounded for a short distance away. “Hop Sing caught him with, uh, his pants down—so to speak.”

At that announcement, Roy and Ben looked behind them. They saw the man George was referring to: pants down around his ankles and hogtied.

Hearing a slight shuffling sound, Ben looked around and saw Hoss crouched next to him—clutching the bloody remains of Joe’s green jacket. His relief was short lived when he glimpsed the jacket. His heart lurched and he felt his world tilt—nothing would ever be right again.

“Ben, where’s Joe?” Roy asked, the apprehension he felt clear in his voice. He had assumed Joe had managed to get away but, from the amount of blood staining the jacket…

“Dead,” the grieving father whispered. Blinking, he looked at Roy. “I don’t—I don’t know where the bod – body is, Roy.”

*****

Part Twenty-Five: PRj

“Hoss … Joe,” a whisper that was only heard because of the silence left by Ben’s last statement.  His words seem to make the forest around them go quiet.

“Danger… help…them,” Adam whispered. “Pa?”

Ben turned around and looked at his son. Hoss and Hop Sing were at his side trying to keep him from moving around and causing further harm to himself.

Hoss looked up. “Pa, he’s delirious. We need water and lots of it. We need to rewrap his ribs, too. It’ll help with his breathing. Back at the cabin there was some old sheets we found in a trunk. It’s what Joe—” he had to pause at the mention of his brother’s name. “Weused the first time.”

Hoss had to clear his throat, as he looked back down at Adam wondering if he was going to be losing another brother this day. He held tight to his brother who was weakly trying to push himself free.

“I…help…them,” Adam opened his swollen eyes as much as he could.

Hoss held his glassed over gaze, hoping that somehow his brother would see him, “Adam, we’re safe. You rest now. Roy’s here with Hop Sing and we’re safe, so you just rest.”

“No, Joe…needs me. Log…pushed…Norman Pike…danger. Joe…Joe…Joe…” his strength gave out, and he fell into a restless cloud of unconsciousness.

Hoss let up his hold and sat back and sighed. He looked around at the men encircled about him. “We need to get him back to the cabin, Pa. He won’t survive the ride down the mountain in the shape his in.” He knew by the look on his father’s face that the cabin was the last place he wanted go. “Pa, Adam’s only chance is the cabin. We need to get him back there and get him more stable before we can go home.”

Ben swallowed hard and said, “I know, Hoss. We’ll make a travois and get him to the cabin. Then I’ll need to go and look,” he paused. “Find Joseph.”

Without another word, they got ready for the move.

*****

Part Twenty-Six: Kaatje

Ben refused to ride, instead of walking alongside the horse-drawn travois, keeping an eye on Adam. He wondered if he would soon lose his eldest son, as well as his youngest. Night was falling, and he could hear the evening song of the birds waning as the chirping of crickets began. A sliver of moon could be seen in the darkening sky. He wondered how the world could look and sound so normal when Joseph was dead. It seemed there ought to be some outward sign of his extraordinary loss.

In his mind’s eye, Ben glimpsed memories of Joe’s all too brief life. Among the most difficult was the time he’d had to explain to his four-year-old that Marie was dead. It had taken awhile for the little boy to understand Mama was never coming back. Most of the time, Joe had been a delightful child, even when he was mischievous, and Ben knew he had indulged his youngest more than the others. This was the child he could relax with, the one he could enjoy in his mature years. He was so filled with intelligence, curiosity, life, and happiness. Quick to temper, but also compassionate enough to freely give of himself.

Even grown as he was at twenty, he seemed to retain a vitality and joy that infected those around him. “Twenty”, Ben thought bitterly. “No time for him to marry, to have children. No time for him to have really lived life.” No, he dismissed that thought as ridiculous. If anyone had lived a full life, it was Joe. He’d put all he had into each moment.

“Smoke.” Hoss’ voice drifted back to him. “Roy, you see that?”

“Now, I ain’t gone blind yet, Hoss. I see it.” Roy heaved a sigh. “Well, looks like you boys better stop here. Me and the posse’ll go on to the cabin. No sense haulin’ Adam into the line of fire.”

Hoss sounded determined, “Roy, I’m goin’ along with you. Maybe Joe—”

“Son, you know your brother’s gone. You know it and your Pa knows it. Don’t let’s go hoping for any miracles ‘cause they ain’t gonna happen.”

Hoss let out an explosive breath. “Well, at least I could help round up the rest of Pike’s snakes.”

“Boy,” Ben could hear Roy attempting to lower his tone. “I think you’d better stay here with your pa. He ain’t too steady on his feet at this point, an’ I think he’s been walkin’ half asleep from that glassy—”

“I am neither half asleep nor unsteady.” Ben straightened as he spoke. He felt torn, not wanting to be separated from Adam, but feeling it his duty to find the rest of Pike’s men. After all, he was the one Pike had been after in the first place. He also thought the remaining thugs might know what had become of Joseph’s body. He felt a hand on his arm.

Hop Sing was beside him. He spoke softly, “You go with Hoss, Mr. Ben. Hop Sing can look after Mr. Adam.”

*****

Joe groaned as the smoky blur around him became clearer, and a weathered face came into focus. A man with gray hair and a bristly mustache was looking down at him.

“How you doin’, boy?”

Joe tried to answer, but his mouth and tongue seemed too dry to work. The man supported him, helping him sit up and held a cup of water to his lips. Joe drank, and then reached up a shaky hand for the cup, spilling the rest down his shirt front and the man’s sleeve. “S-sorry. Who?”

“Name’s Merle.” He gave a slight nod. “Don’t worry about a little water, son. Did what I could to bind you up. Bullet’s still in ya.”

“Quit bein’ so chatty, Merle.” The surly voice came from Joe’s right.

“Ain’t doing no harm, Cotton,” Merle answered quietly.

Joe’s vision blurred again, and he started when he felt the cup against his lips again. He drank, surprised by warm liquid this time, which tasted of beef and onion. His view of the room gradually cleared again, and he saw the flames flickering in the fireplace and felt the heat on his face. He could also see that Merle still supported him, and was observing him with some concern.

“You and that boy.” The same voice that spoke before was sarcastic. “You’re like a hen with one chick. Washin’ that boy up, binding him, hand feedin’ him water and soup. I think you’ve gone soft, Merle. You ain’t got the stomach to be a man no more.”

Joe could see a flash of anger in Merle’s brown eyes. He answered in a harsher tone than he had used with Joe. “Listen, Cotton—you want to be the one to tell Pike we let this boy die? I didn’t think so. You can keep shut about things you’re obviously too thick to understand. It’s common sense to clean a wound and bind it. It’s common sense to know if a man ain’t got no food and water in him, he ain’t gonna to make it long either. It’s gonna be hard enough to pull this boy through with that slug in him. You don’t think it’s already infecting? I can feel the fever rising in him.”

“That so?” Another man came into Joe’s line of sight. His long white hair was worn in a braid and bound with a leather strip. Thick eyebrows were knotted over a pair of angry blue eyes. Despite the hair color, his face was far less lined than Merle’s, and he moved with a younger man’s ease. “He don’t look fevered to me.”

“You can’t see that flush along his cheeks? He’s fevered alright.” Merle’s lips thinned as they tightened. “And just because you ain’t got any human feelings left—yes make that ugly face—don’t mean the rest of us ain’t. I got a boy myself that’d be about his age, if he’s still alive. I ain’t seen him nigh on four years.”

“The two of you can be quiet. I’ve had about enough of your squawking, the both of you.” Hagge’s voice came from the front of the cabin.

Joe turned his head, painful though it was. He could just make out Hagge’s silhouette in the door. He remembered talking to the man, trying to point out Pike’s insanity. Dan Hagge had not quibbled about the state of Pike’s mind, merely dismissed it as any argument against loyalty. He was Norm Pike’s man through and through. Joe wondered if the same could be said of a man like Merle.

Cotton replied, “I don’t have to shut up for the likes of you, Hagge.”

“You’ll be quiet when I say or you’ll…” Hagge turned back to the open doorway and held out a hand, his body tensing. He turned his head slightly and snapped, “Horses coming, lots of them. Get those rifles up here!”

Joe felt himself lowered down and saw Merle step around him, rifle in hand. He tried to rise again, but found he was too weak. All he could do was watch helplessly, as the three men prepared for a battle.

“Stop where you are, unless you want the boy dead!” Hagge called out.

“An’ which boy would that be?” The voice was familiar to Joe. Roy Coffee was here!

Hagge spat. “The Cartwright whelp. We got the youngest one, here in the cabin. You make one move and we’ll put another bullet in him.”

*****

Part Twenty-Seven: debpet

The men approaching the cabin looked at each other in astonishment. Could it be true? Could Joe Cartwright possibly still be alive? Roy Coffee glanced over at Ben and saw the light of renewed hope that had come into his eyes. He knew that the man had been put through an emotional wringer this day, and he dreaded to think what it would do to him if this hope should prove false. They needed to find out for certain just what they were dealing with. He motioned to Ben and Hoss and they quickly came up to stand beside him.

“We have to do something, Roy!” Ben spoke in a low, urgent voice. “They’ve got Joe in there!”

Before Roy could respond the peremptory voice of Hagge was heard again from the cabin.

“You hear me out there? I mean it! I’m countin’ to ten and if you don’t want to hear my gun go off at the end of it you’d best back off—now!”

“We hear ya!” Roy called back. “Now keep your shirts on in there. Nobody’s gonna bother ya. We’re movin’ off.” And with a gesture of his arm he guided the men following him to retreat back behind the trees at the edge of the cleared space surrounding the cabin.

When they had all moved out of sight of the watchers in the cabin, Ben turned on Roy with a kind of desperation in his face.

“Well, Roy, what do you intend to do now?” he demanded. “Joe may be alive for the moment, but he has to be badly hurt. We can’t just stand back here and try to wait them out. We have to get in there!”

“I know, Ben – I know.” Roy laid a hand on his friend’s arm, trying to soothe him. “And we’re gonna do something all right. But first we’ve gotta know just what we’re up against.” He turned to Frank, who stood nearby.

“Frank, do you think you can get around behind the cabin without lettin’ anyone inside see ya?”

“I’m sure I can, sheriff,” the young man answered, nodding his head.

“Do it then,” Roy said. “There hasta be some kind of window in the back. I want to know just how many men are in there and where they are. See what you can find out about what condition Joe’s in, too. The light is gettin’ kind of dim, so that should help you. And for heaven’s sake don’t let them spot you. Got it?”

Frank nodded solemnly. “I’ll do my best,” he said.

“Good.” Roy couldn’t help smiling at the seriousness with which Frank took his assignment. “Go on then. And be careful.”

Frank slipped away into the deepening shadows. For several minutes Roy, Ben, Hoss and George stood there silently, each occupied with his own thoughts about what had happened this day and what might be about to happen. As the light was fading the air was becoming chillier, and the men began to shiver slightly. The silence among them was oppressive, but no one seemed willing to break it. As the moments passed and Roy judged that it should be about time for Frank to be returning, he strained his ears to catch any sound that might be a clue to what was happening. He glanced at Ben and was not surprised to see that he was doing the same.

And then, without warning, Frank reappeared, breathing a little heavily, but apparently unscathed.

“You all right, son?” Roy asked him, casting a quick glance to check for any possible injuries.

“Yeah, sheriff,” Frank assured him. “There wasn’t any problem. I don’t think any of ‘em caught sight of me. There was a window in back like you expected. It’s a pretty small one, but I managed to get a good look at the whole room through it. There are three men besides Joe…”

“Then that accounts for all of Pike’s men,” Ben cut in grimly.

“There’s one of ‘em standing by each of the windows that looks out front from either side of the door,” Frank continued. “The third one is sitting by Joe against the side wall, the one to your right as you go in the door. I could see Joe’s head move a little, but he seemed to be unconscious and I couldn’t really tell much about how bad he was hurt. The guys at the windows seemed to be keeping a pretty sharp eye out. I guess that’s about it.”

“Good job, son,” Roy praised him, nodding approvingly. He stopped to think for a moment while the others looked at him expectantly. “There are no windows in the side walls?”

“That’s right. Just the two on either side of the door and the one in back,” Frank answered as he reached up to scratch his neck.

Roy continued to stand there in thoughtful silence with his eyes cast down for a moment. Then he raised his eyes to look at the others determinedly.

“All right,” he said. “This is what we’re gonna do.”

*****

In the cabin an almost eerie silence reigned as Hagge and Cotton stared out the front windows, their eyes straining to catch any movement in the fading light. Every once in a while Joe let out with a little moan and Merle, sitting beside him would reach out to wipe his face with a damp cloth. Once, as Merle looked up, he thought he caught a glimpse of movement at the back window. But it was so quick that he could not be certain, and he said nothing.

“What do you suppose they’re doin’ out there?” Cotton muttered, his gaze shifting restlessly in search of a possible assault on the cabin.

“Well, they haven’t just up and gone away. That’s about all I’m sure of,” Hagge responded, as he, too, looked for movement in the shadows.

Merle spoke up quietly. “You know, we don’t have very much food or water in here. If they wanted to they could just camp out there and wait until we’re forced to come out.”

Hagge looked at him and sneered. “You’re forgettin’ about the boy there. They’re not gonna want to leave him waitin’ for too long. Oh, they’re gonna try somethin’ all right. And we just have to be ready for them when they do.”

Silence descended again. It was finally broken when Merle spoke up again in the same quiet voice. “What do you suppose happened to Pike and the others? Obviously, something didn’t go the way it was supposed to.”

“How should I know?” Hagge retorted sharply, glancing sharply at Merle. “Why don’t you just keep your trap shut?” And he went back to gazing out the window.

Even as they were speaking, three figures slipped out of the shadows of the trees and approached the windowless side of the cabin. For a moment they plastered themselves against the wall. Then they crouched down and snuck around the front of the cabin, staying close to the wall and underneath the windows so that they could not be seen. Noiselessly they took up positions on both sides of the door and waited. They didn’t have to wait long.

Inside the three men waited tensely. Hagge was bothered by the sense that something was happening outside his range of his vision. Nervously, he fingered the trigger of his gun.

Then, suddenly, there was a loud crashing noise as something smashed through the back window. Hagge, Cotton and Merle all turned their heads to look at the rock that lay in the middle of the floor. At the same moment the door burst open and Ben, Hoss, and Roy stormed into the room with weapons raised.

Seeing the hopelessness of the situation, Dan Hagge determined to do what he could to complete Norman Pike’s vendetta. He pointed his gun at the prone figure of Joe, lying unconscious on the floor. But Merle saw him, and he threw himself across the boy’s body just as the gun went off. He gasped as the bullet struck him in the upper back. At the same time, a bullet from Ben’s gun spun Hagge around and he collapsed to the floor with blood streaming from his arm. Cotton, covered by Roy, laid down his weapon and grimly surrendered.

Ben and Hoss hurried over to where Merle lay sprawled across Joe. They lifted him off of Joe and carefully laid him down on the floor. Ben knelt down next to Joe and very tenderly gathered his son into his arms. He held the boy tightly and offered up a prayer of thanks.

Joe’s eyes slowly opened, and he gazed up at the man who held him.

“Pa?” he gasped weakly, pain rolling through him in waves.

“Yes, son,” Ben replied with a tremor in his voice, reaching out a trembling hand to feel the living warmth in his arms. “I’m here.”

With a sigh of satisfaction, Joe settled back and let unconsciousness take him again.

*****

A few minutes later, Ben was walking down the path toward the spot where they had left Hop Sing with Adam. Hoss walked beside him, gently carrying his younger brother in his arms. Joe seemed well content to rest in his brother’s strength, laying his head against Hoss’ chest and breathing evenly. Ben had decided to leave Roy, along with Frank and George, to take care of things at the cabin, and to take Joseph as quickly as possible back to where Hop Sing was waiting, hoping that he could do something for the boy.

Ben was feeling drained. The enormous relief of finding his youngest son alive after believing him to be dead was almost too much after everything that had happened today. Ben could hardly wait to get both of his injured sons home where they could be properly cared for and, finally, there seemed to be nothing to stand in the way of that highly desirable outcome.

They came within sight of the place and Ben caught a glimpse of Adam, lying there under the large tree with Hop Sing beside him. Ben caught his breath as something seemed to be wrong. Hop Sing knelt down next to Adam with his head bowed and his face buried in his hands. Hearing the sound of the approaching party, Hop Sing looked up. And in his eyes there was a deep sadness.

“Mista Ben…” he choked out.

And suddenly Ben Cartwright was very afraid again.

*****

Part Twenty-Eight: Grimesgirl

Ben froze in his tracks. Hop Sing’s voice had brought his oldest son’s condition crashing down on him. With a great effort, he forced himself to go to his son’s side. Was he to lose this son who had walked beside him across the country; who had been at his side in his long fight to establish the Ponderosa?

“Hop Sing, what is it?” his voice trembled as he tried to read his longtime friend’s face.

“Mista Ben, I so sorry. Mista Adam gone.”

Ben shook his head in denial. “No, Hop Sing, I can’t believe that, I won’t believe that!” He laid his hand along his son’s neck trying to find the heartbeat that would make a lie to the news that Hop Sing had given him. He could feel nothing.

“Adam,” he called softly. “Son, it’s Pa, answer me, son.”

Adam pale face was like wax to the touch. Cold and growing hard.

Ben felt someone kneel beside him and knew it was Hoss.

“Pa, let me look at him,” Hoss pleaded, not meeting his pa’s gaze.

Ben raised unbelieving eyes to his middle son. “He’s not responding, Hoss, I can’t feel a pulse. God help us, he’s gone.”

“Pa, please let me look.” Hoss tried to move his father aside so he could get to Adam. “Pa, please, Joe needs you. Go take care of him, let me try to reach Adam.”

Ben hesitated. What was he to do? One son badly wounded, the other – no, he wouldn’t let himself believe that. Hoss could – would help, he had to, he simply had to. He slowly nodded and pulled himself to the side so Hoss could move closer.

Hoss bent over his brother, putting his head to the stained shirt. Holding his breath he listened for that sound that would tell him his brother was still alive.

Nothing.

He drew in a shaky breath. No, it couldn’t be. He’d just missed it. Again he bent and stilled himself. Time seemed to stand still and then, was that it? Or was it just wishful thinking on his part. He listened again. Yes, now he was sure. There was a heartbeat, very faint and very weak but, without a doubt, it was there. He could also feel the faint rise and fall as the chest beneath his cheek drew in breath.

He looked at Hop Sing and a small smile quirked his lips. Hop Sing put his hand on Adam chest and after a long moment he returned the smile.

“Pa,” Hoss softly called to his father. “Pa, I can hear a heartbeat. We gotta get to them to a doctor.”

Ben closed his eyes and sent a quick prayer of thanks heavenward.

*****

Part Twenty-Nine: AdamFan16

A slow rasp left his son’s lips, reverberating in his heart like the crack of a pistol. For one more moment, one more breath, Joe was still with him. In a room just across the hall, he could faintly hear the rumble of Hoss talking to an unconscious Adam. His sons surrounded him, but only by a thread.

“Joe?” Ben whispered, leaning over him yet again. There was no response, not even a tightening of the hand he held.

“Son, you know you’re going to pull through this, just as surely as that mountain is going to be there in the morning. Believe it, boy,” Ben shuddered suddenly. “Please.”

“Pa?” Hoss’ hesitant step came at the door, “Hop Sing just brought a tray up, and he’s gonna’ sit with Adam for a bit while you and me eat. He says he ain’t leavin’ until I bring him the tray back empty.”

Ben turned to meet the tired smile with one of his own, “Alright, Hoss, let’s eat.”

He removed the bottles of medicine from Joe’s bedside table and moved it out into the room so Hoss could place the tray on it. The savory steam coming from the tray only nauseated him.

“Maybe you’d better eat it, son, I’ll just drink some coffee.”

“No sir.” Hoss’ voice once again held that ring of authority, and Ben found himself obediently reaching for a plate.

“When did you start giving orders around here?” he asked with an attempt at playful sternness.

“When I figured they needed some givin’,” Hoss replied glibly, ladling the potatoes onto his father’s plate.

For a few moments, the only sounds were the scraping of forks, and the ever present background of Joe’s slow breathing.

“The doc said if he’ll make it through tonight without gettin’ no worse, he’s got a real good chance.” Hoss reminded his pa.

Ben blinked, his eyes never wavering from the pale face on the pillow, his voice low and rough, “I know, and Adam has an even better chance. Why should their lives even be a question of chance?”

“They ain’t, Pa, and you know it.” Hoss frowned, “Not unless every scripture you done taught me as a kid is worthless. I reckon we got Someone mighty powerful on our side in this.”

Ben relaxed against the chair, “Makes you wonder how He did it.”

“Did it?” Hoss asked, his fork resting idly on his plate.

“Let Jesus go through what he did. As a father—it brings a whole different light to the story of Easter.” Ben reached a hand and grasped Hoss’ arm, “It’s not as easy thing to be a father, Hoss.”

“I don’t reckon any of us will ever know what you went through in all this.” Hoss covered the hand on his arm, ” But I do know that there’s only one man in the world that could have borne it, and I’m mighty proud to claim him as my Pa.”

“Old fools make poor fathers.” Ben quoted with a sad smile.

“An’ us young fools make it kinda hard on an old fool like you – don’t we, Pa?” Hoss grinned, reaching for his neglected fork, “Hop Sing’s gonna pitch a fit if we don’t eat more than this!”

Ben picked up his fork, a real smile somehow planting itself on his face, “We can’t have him quitting now – he’s got two very bad patients to nurse back to health!”

*****

Part Thirty: Nanuk

EPILOGUE

 

It was a silent group that gathered at the bottom of the slope four weeks later.

Ben couldn’t help but cast worried glances at Adam and Joe whose faces were still too pale under the last fading traces of the bruises. Their wounds healing, the broken bones mending, Ben could nevertheless envision the stark-white bindings underneath their clothes – bindings that weren’t visible for the sole reason that both of them had buttoned their shirts properly for once. Ben hadn’t been able to help the tiny smile escaping when he had seen it, nor the sly glances his sons had thrown him. Still, he was only too aware of the tired lines on their faces that they couldn’t manage to conceal, and nodded gratefully to Hoss, who had chosen a convenient position just behind his brothers. Adam and Joe had insisted to be here today, though, and Ben hadn’t been able to deny them.

Carefully he stepped forward, and then set down the marker they had brought. The inscription was simple; giving no more than names of the Pike family and a date, but Ben gazed down and gently stroked the marble before he lifted his eyes. His sons were standing beside him, tall and straight, their faces solemn but composed, and gratefully he smiled at them, realizing suddenly why they had wanted to be with him.

His voice was calm when he spoke, reflecting the same quiet contemplation that was in his sons’ eyes. They had survived when others hadn’t, had once more survived against all odds. The prayer Ben offered came from deep within him, and he knew he would be forever grateful that they had been given another chance.

Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,

Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;

 Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;

 Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, and endureth all things.

 Love never faileth..*.

Ben lifted his eyes and looked at his sons, saw them in front of him, the fulfilled promises of the children they had been, the men they had become. Love didn’t fail, and neither had he.

All was well.

***The End***

*I Corinthians 13:4-8

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