Fraternity (by Patina)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  9100


 

Adam, Hoss, and Joe were checking the line shacks and making repairs as needed. The shacks, as originally designed by a teenaged Adam, housed the hands close to the herd during the winter to keep predators away from the cattle. Most of the hands liked living in the shacks — four men shared the space, playing poker, repairing gear, and swapping stories. Each building was well-insulated, keeping the men snug during the long, snowy winters.

Finishing repairs to the roof, Adam hollered, “Let’s take a break. Why don’t we go to the pond and relax for a while?”

“Ain’tcha feelin’ well, Adam? Yer tellin’ us to rest up?”

Taking off his hat to wipe the inside of the brim, he sarcastically replied, “I can’t make a suggestion every once in a while?”

Joe popped his head out of the shack to confirm what he’d heard. “You’re gonna let us go swimming? Or fishing?” Adam just glowered at his youngest brother. “Hoss must be right — you can’t be feeling well. Maybe you should go see Dr. Martin.” Hoss snickered as Joe kept a straight face.

Climbing down the ladder, Adam couldn’t believe that his brothers would question the offer of a break, especially since they’d been working steadily, and without complaint, for the past four hours. “If you two workhorses want to keep toiling away, by all means, go ahead. I’m going to the pond.”

Hoss and Joe guffawed when they were sure Adam was out of earshot. “You’d think he’d be happy with us working,” laughed out Joe.

“He’s just cranky ‘cause he drew roof fixin’. I guess the sun finally got to him.”

“Let’s get this shack finished and then sneak up on him. We can toss him in the pond before he realizes we’re there.”

“It ain’t easy to sneak up on ol’ Adam. I reckon we’ll have to do some thinkin’ on it.” Hoss dissolved into laughter while Joe giggled in glee. If they planned their sneak attack correctly, Adam would never know what hit him.

*****

Reaching the pond, Adam tied Sport loosely to a tree so the horse could graze in the shade. Going to the pond, he knelt down, cupping the cool water in his hands. The feel of the water on his face and neck was refreshing. Noticing how inviting the shade looked, he stretched out in the tall, soft grass under the tree and covered his eyes with his hat. Nature’s lullaby sang him to sleep.

Sport contentedly munched on the lush grass as the light breeze ruffled his mane. Catching the scent of other horses, he pricked his ears and sniffed the wind. He gave a soft snort before testing the wind again — he didn’t know these scents. Another odor was carried on the wind — the pungent smell of cattle. Stamping a hoof, Sport blew the smell from his nose.

Stirring briefly, Adam hushed his horse with soothing words. Still tired, his body pulled him back towards slumber.

Three men were herding ten steers towards the pond. The lead man, seeing a horse tied to the tree up ahead, motioned his companions to stop. He whispered, “You two stay here.”

The ringleader slowly approached the tied horse on foot. Not recognizing this man, Sport nickered and stamped. Adam heard his horse and a smile played upon his lips as he imagined Hoss and Joe working so hard to be quiet. Willing himself to lie perfectly still, he appeared to be sound asleep. There was no point in denying his younger brothers their fun; once they were close enough, he’d turn the tables on them and they’d be in the pond, not him.

Hearing the swish of grass against jeans, Adam felt his fingers twitching in anticipation. Just a little closer and his brothers would be in for a surprise. Feeling hands gripping his ankles, he realized he’d better spring his trap before they carried out their plan. Quickly pulling his hat from his face as he sat up, he wasn’t prepared for the fist that connected with his chin, sprawling him back onto the grass.

Out of curiosity, the other two men walked up to see what was happening. “Why’re ya tyin’ his hands together?” asked Dickie.

“Might as well have some fun,” replied the ringleader. He then checked over his prey for valuables and pulled a wallet from Adam’s pocket. Quickly pocketing the money, he tossed it aside after noting that nothing else of value was inside. Taking hold of the rope that bound Adam’s hands, he lifted his victim to his feet and began dragging him towards the pond. All Adam could do was stumble along.

Reaching the water’s edge, the man pushed Adam onto his belly and then placed a boot on the back of his head. Bubbles burst forth from the water’s surface as Adam struggled to break free. Easing up the pressure, the man allowed Adam to come up for a brief second before dunking him under again.

“That Ernie sure has a mean streak,” said Dave to no one in particular.

Dickie had picked up the discarded wallet and was looking it over. A pine tree and two letters—A.C.—were branded on it. Nudging Dave, Dickie showed the markings to his companion.

Dave let out a low whistle at seeing the brand and letters and quickly realized that he needed to let Ernie know what a valuable commodity they had.

Growing tired of dunking his prey, Ernie removed his boot from Adam’s head and he popped out of the water. Rolling onto his back, Adam gasped for breath and tried to work at the knots that bound his hands.

Dave threw the wallet at Ernie, who took a look at it and tossed it to the ground with a glare. “He’s one a them Cartwrights,” said Dave. “I bet he’d bring a fair price.”

Ernie looked over at Adam with a new appreciation. Swiftly walking over to him, he kicked his prey under the chin. Adam’s eyes rolled up as his head snapped back. “Help me git him on Dickie’s horse,” he ordered.

“What’re we gonna do with those steers?” Dickie asked. “Ah thought we was gonna sell ‘em.”

“We got something more valuable than beef on the hoof in this here Cartwright,” Ernie said as he jerked his thumb towards Adam. “Ah figure big money’ll be paid fer him. More’n we could git fer these lazy steers.”

“Ain’t we gonna take the horse?” Dickie asked. If not, he was going to have to ride double with Cartwright.

“Leave it. A man kin git hanged fer horse thievin’,” said Ernie. “Help tie him to Dickie’s horse,” he ordered Dave.

Dickie and Dave each hooked a hand between Adam’s arm and body and dragged him towards the horse as ordered. Ernie began searching Sport’s saddlebags for valuables. Not finding anything, Ernie said, “Let’s go find us a place to hole up with our guest.” Adam was slung face-down across Dickie’s saddle, so the outlaw had to sit behind the cantle. He hoped they wouldn’t be going too far since it wasn’t a comfortable way to ride.

*****

“Are you about ready for a break?” asked Hoss.

“Do you think he’s out there sleepin’?”

“I figure he’s out there readin’ one of his books. We’ll have to be real quiet to catch him by surprise.”

“If he’s sleepin’, we should have him in the pond before he knows what’s goin’ on.” Joe giggled since it wasn’t that often they could get one over on their older brother.

The two rode in companionable silence, enjoying the warm sun and gentle breeze. Finally seeing Sport up ahead, they dismounted and tied their horses to some bushes.

“Where do you think he is?” whispered Joe.

“That tall grass is hidin’ him if he’s stretched out. You go around that side of the tree and I’ll go around this one. Signal if you see where he is.”

Joe grinned in anticipation — if they succeeded, he wasn’t going to let Adam forget; he was the one always saying to set up camp in a way that there could be no surprises. This was going to be one big surprise Adam never expected!

Approaching the tree as quietly as he could, Hoss saw Sport raise his head and prick his ears. Placing his finger against his lips, Hoss hoped the horse wouldn’t whicker and give him away. A moo caught Hoss’ ear — what were steers doing up here? They weren’t supposed to be moved to this pasture for another two months.

Still determined to surprise his older brother, Hoss crept through the tall grass to the tree. Looking towards the pond, he saw Joe moving stealthily through the grass. Peering around the tree, he expected to see Adam lying in the shade; all he saw was his brother’s hat and flattened grass where he must have been sleeping. How did he know they were coming? Hoss looked up into the tree, half expecting him to be perched on a branch. A chill run up his spine and he suddenly had an uneasy feeling.

Deciding to check out the flattened grass, he came around the tree and pressed his hand to the ground. It was cold, so if Adam had been there, he’d been gone for a while. Standing, he motioned Joe to come over.

“Where do you think he’s hiding? Do you think he’s watching us and laughing?” asked Joe.

“I don’t think he’s here, Joe.”

“He has to be. Why would he leave Sport tied here?”

Picking up Adam’s hat, Hoss said, “Somethin’ ain’t right. Look around and see if you can find anything.”

Searching the area for clues, Joe saw some leather lying in the grass. Picking it up, he drew in a sharp breath. “Hoss! Adam’s wallet. It’s empty.” The two exchanged an uneasy glance and began searching again.

Hoss quickly noticed the unfamiliar boot prints — one set headed for the pond along with what appeared to be Adam’s prints. Those sets were joined by two more headed away from the pond dragging something. Or someone. Following the prints, he found where three horses had stood. The tracks leading away showed one horse carrying a heavy load. A grim look crossed his face — if Adam had been on that horse, he probably hadn’t been conscious and able to fight back. He told Joe his thoughts about what happened.

“We need to get word to Pa and Roy. If Adam caught them rustling and tried to stop them, he might be shot.”

“We didn’t hear a shot,” reminded Hoss.

“They did something! We’ve gotta find ‘em! If they think Adam can identify ‘em as rustlers, who knows what they’ll do. If they’ve hurt him…” Joe’s eyes were now flashing as if lit by lightning.

“Calm down, Lil Joe. We gotta think instead of chargin’ after those fellas.”

“The longer we wait, the further away they’re gonna get!”

Placing his hands on his brother’s shoulders, Hoss gave a gentle squeeze. “We’re gonna find him, don’t you doubt it. We gotta get a message to Pa.”

Taking a deep breath, Joe asked, “How?”

“Let’s check his saddlebags. Ol’ Adam usually carries a pencil and a sketchbook.” With another squeeze to Joe’s shoulders, Hoss went over to Sport. Joe joined him in the search for pencil and paper. They didn’t find the sketchbook but they found a pencil.

Pulling The Count of Monte Cristo from the saddlebag, Joe shot Hoss a nervous glance before tearing the title page from the binding. “He’ll forgive me, won’t he?”

“Sure he will. Adam’ll understand why you did it.” Handing the pencil over to Joe, he said, “You write somethin’ to Pa. You’re better at that than me.”

Joe turned the sheet sideways and wrote in fast, bold strokes. Finishing, he asked, “How are we gonna get it to Pa?”

Pulling his bandana from his pocket, Hoss held out his hand for the note. He folded the piece of paper several times and then knotted one corner of the fabric around it. Placing the knotted corner against the saddle horn, he pulled two of the other corners around it and knotted those; the fourth corner was left free to serve as a distress signal.

Finishing, Hoss prepared to give Sport a slap to send him home. “What if we need him?” Joe asked worriedly.

“We gotta hope that ain’t the case,” Hoss replied with a slap to the horse’s rump. Sport sprang forward with a whinny, trotted a few yards, then stopped and turned around; he whickered in confusion. Taking off his hat, Joe waved it and yelled, “Get on home!” Again, Sport trotted a few yards and stopped to look back.

Realizing they were wasting time, Joe’s temper began to resurface. Running at Sport, he waved his hat and yelled, “Get outta here!” The noise and waving hat spooked the horse and he galloped off for safety.

Watching the horse disappear over the horizon, Hoss realized that finding Adam was up to him and Joe. The men who took him had planned to steal cattle but changed their minds. Where were they going? Why did they take Adam? They had his money — wasn’t that enough? Taking a deep breath, he tried to clear his head. All that mattered now was tracking down those thieves and getting Adam back. Swatting at a fly, he held his hand in front of his eyes. Balling up his fist, he thought they’d better not harm his brother in any way. Joe might be the Cartwright known for having a fast temper, but Hoss’ was like black powder — it started slow then burned white hot; just as quickly as it had started to flare, the flame went out. Lord help those who made that temper flare by harming his family.

“Mount up, Joe. The sooner we find ‘em, the sooner we’ll get Adam.”

Swinging up into the saddle, Joe said, “If he’s hurt, they’re gonna wish they’d never set foot on the Ponderosa.”

They rode off following the tracks left by the would-be rustlers. Both were thinking their own thoughts on Adam’s possible condition. Joe knew Hoss could single-handedly tear a man limb-from-limb if pushed hard enough; if Adam was hurt or dying, his older brother’s brute strength and anger would make him as fast and ferocious as a grizzly. Riding in silence, Hoss thought about his younger brother’s temper — it was like a burning pine tree, very hot and bright; since Joe had an excellent quick draw, he might shoot all of Adam’s captors in the blink of an eye. Lost in these thoughts, both wondered if there would be any reason to involve Roy Coffee.

*****

The raft bobbed up and down on the Truckee River as Adam and Ross floated towards the rapids. They thought the hastily constructed raft had been a good idea at the time; they hadn’t thought about what the speed of the river would do it its bindings. The nausea from the violent bobbing of the raft left Adam feeling he would vomit. Before he could gain control of his stomach, the bile came rushing towards his mouth. He was lying down on the raft, emptying his stomach into the roiling water.

“He’s messin’ on my boots!” complained Dickie.

“You kin clean up later. Just make sure he stays there.”

Adam groaned and wished he could rinse his mouth. How long had he been slung across this saddle and where was he being taken? There wasn’t much talking going on, so he wasn’t going to get any clues from his captors. The creak of saddle leather and the humming of the man who’d complained were the only sounds to be heard. For once, he’d give his right arm for Joe to tease him about his work ethic.

“That looks like a place we kin hole up,” announced Dave, pointing out the cabin up ahead.

“You go on ahead an’ make sure there ain’t nobody there,” ordered Ernie.

“How’re we gonna keep him quiet ‘til we git the money?” asked Dickie.

“There’s plenty a ways to do that,” replied Ernie with a wicked grin.

“If he gits hurt, we might not git any money.”

Adam realized he was going to be ransomed; at least that meant he’d be treated decently. They’d want to make sure he stayed in good enough health to get their money.

“People always pay out the money first. A whole lot kin happen after he’s been paid fer.”

Adam felt it hard to breathe at hearing that. These men might kill him and go through with the ransom request. Pa would pay the money in good faith, assuming that these men would honor their bargain. He’d have to escape at his first opportunity if he expected to live.

He heard the sound of a galloping horse followed by, “Ain’t nobody living in that cabin. It’s got real beds and some food stashed in there.”

“Let’s go make ourselves comfortable while we wait to get rich,” said Ernie.

Arriving at the cabin, Dickie dismounted and said, “Dave, come help me with him.” As the two men untied him, Adam tried to think of a way to escape. Feeling the circulation returning to his hands, he wanted to flex them but was dumped on the ground after his legs were untied. Rolling over, he looked up into the muzzle of a pistol.

“Get up slow-like,” the man holding the gun said.

Adam shakily got to his feet and glared.

“Tie his hands so he can’t use nothin’ as a weapon.” A man approached with some rope and he felt his left hand being pulled behind his back. Lunging into the man, Adam flung him into the gun holder and began running. As he sped through the trees, he tried to think of a place to hide. Distracted by his thoughts, he slipped on a patch of damp leaves and fell head first into a rotting log. Putting out his hands to shield his face, he crashed through the rotten timber, hitting the ground hard.

A sharp stinging immediately traveled up his right arm and a yelp escaped his mouth. Rough hands jerked him to his feet as he gritted his teeth against the pain.

“What the hell?” said Dave, looking at the fragmented log.

Ernie’s boot came crashing down as he said, “It’s jest a scorpion.” As his boot crushed the creature into oblivion, he ordered, “Git him up to the cabin.”

As he was dragged off, Adam’s mind was filled with a primal feeling of pain. His entire arm felt as if hot coals were being pressed against it.

Reaching the cabin, Ernie ordered, “Tie him to the bed.”

“What are we gonna do fer him?” asked Dickie.

“Do fer him? All we need is money. We ain’t gotta do nothin’ fer him.”

“What if he dies?”

“As long as we get the money, it don’t matter.”

“Won’t his family be right bothered if he dies?”

“I reckon so.”

After a short pause, Dickie said, “I’d be right bothered if somethin’ happened to you.”

“Yer too soft. No wonder yer just a follower.” Ernie then went inside; Dickie wondered how two brothers sired by the same man and born of the same woman could be so different.

Going inside, Dickie saw Dave tying the man’s feet to the bed posts. The man was moaning in pain, sweating, and clutching his badly swollen hand. “Why’re ya tyin’ up his feet? I don’t think he’ll be goin’ nowhere.”

“It’s just a percaution. He cain’t kick at us thisaway.”

“Git over here an’ write the note,” Ernie ordered.

Dave went to the table, looked around, and asked, “On what?”

All three began rummaging through the cabin to find paper. Dickie found a journal and tore a blank page out. Taking the offered paper, Dave began sharpening the pencil he’d found with his jackknife.

“Any message in particular?” Dave asked.

Ernie said, “Tell his family $5,000; that oughtta do it.”

“C’mon, we could git more than that fer him,” urged Dave.

“We want his family to send the money, not git a posse together to deliver it,” said Ernie.

Dave got busy writing the note. “How ‘bout Hell’s Gap for the money swap?” he asked Ernie. “We could git set up to shoot anyone bringin’ the money an’ they wouldn’t be able to shoot back.”

“Sounds pretty good,” agreed Ernie. “Put that in the note.”

Finishing up with a flourish, Dave cleared his throat and read the note aloud. “We got us a Cartwright. If ya want him ta live, bring $5,000 to Hell’s Gap at noon in two days’ time. We’ll trade the money fer him.”

“Shouldn’tcha tell ‘em not to bring the law?” asked Dickie.

“They ain’t gonna have time to bring the law,” said Dave. “This here note says two days. That means they’ll have ta git the money an’ ride hard.”

“Good thinkin’,” said Ernie. “Shore is a good thing I kin rely on ya.”

“Who’s gonna take it?” asked Dickie.

“Since Dave here knows the brand, I figger he knows where their place is,” said Ernie. “Am I right?”

“That’s right. I kin git there an’ back in a day if I push my horse hard.”

“Guess ya’d best git started on yer way,” said Ernie.

“Wouldja mind if I waited ‘til mornin’? Ah’d hate to take a wrong turn in the dark an’ not git this note delivered. ‘Specially since we’re askin’ fer $5,000.”

“You’d best git started,” said Ernie with a glare. “You kin camp on the way if you’re afraid of gettin’ lost.”

Realizing that Ernie was likely to kill him so the money could be split two ways instead of three, Dave folded the note and stuck it in his pocket. “We’re gonna need somethin’ of his so his family’ll know that we got him.”

All three men looked over at Adam, who was now moaning loudly. “We shoulda kept that wallet,” Dave said to no one in particular.

“How ‘bout his gunbelt?” asked Dickie.

“That’ll do,” said Ernie. Dave unbuckled the gun belt, shot a glare at Ernie, and left.

Dickie noticed how much Adam’s face was twitching. “Shouldn’t we do somethin’ fer him?”

“I ain’t a doc, but if you wanna nurse him, you go right ahead,” grumbled Ernie. “As long as yer doin’ woman’s work, cook up some grub.”

Torn between trying to make their hostage more comfortable or obeying his brother, Dickie decided to start supper. After searching the cabinets, he soon had salt pork and beans on the stove.

*****

Hoss and Joe had been steadily following the men who had their brother; his captors had made no effort to hide their tracks. With the deep blue of evening shading the sky, they both knew that they’d have to stop for the night. Neither one wanted to stop. They had to catch up to Adam before something happened to him.

“There’s only gonna be a quarter moon,” said Hoss. “Won’t be enough light to see by.”

“Maybe we can make some torches. We gotta keep looking.”

“Torches’ll make us visible. If they know they’re bein’ followed, they might kill him.”

“Maybe they’ve already…”

“Don’t say that! He’s still alive! He’s gotta be!”

Joe looked away, eyes filled with stinging tears that he refused to release. “All I’m saying is we need to keep going.” He heard Hoss taking a deep breath. The important thing was to find Adam without giving the men who had him a reason to hurt him.

“They’re gonna have to stop for the night, too, Joe. We can stop and rest a few hours to let them set up camp. They probably don’t think anyone’s followin’ them. We have a better chance of sneaking up on them during the night while they’re not expecting anything. If we can take ‘em by surprise, there’s less of a chance for Adam to get hurt.”

“You’re right,” he agreed softly.

“We’re gonna find him, Joe. Don’t you doubt that. Let’s get some rest. These tracks have been goin’ due east, so I figure we’ll go that way and find their camp. Get some firewood and I’ll take care of the horses.”

Once they had a small fire going, they sat in silence, gnawing on beef jerky. Since they had only planned to surprise Adam at the pond, they didn’t have any food packed in their saddlebags. Hoss hoped that Adam was being given something to eat; Joe hoped that his oldest brother was close enough to a campfire to keep warm.

Even though lost in thought, they both heard the snap of twigs followed by a voice calling out, “Halloo there. Mind if I share yer fire?” Joe’s pistol was drawn and cocked in case trouble wanted to camp with them. “Come on in slow,” answered Hoss.

Emerging into the light was a man on a bay with one white sock. He dismounted slowly, tied his horse to a shrub, and came to the fire. Squatting, he slowly reached his hands towards the flames. Seeing Joe’s pistol still pointed at him, he said, “You fellas sure are jumpy. Would ya mind puttin’ that away?”

After a look to Hoss, Joe put the pistol in its holster. “What brings you out here?” asked Hoss to make conversation.

“I’m just headin’ south. Nowhere in particular.”

“After the Ponderosa, there’s nothin’ but desert,” said Hoss with a look for the stranger.

“Yeah, I know. I’m shore I’ll run into somethin’ though.”

“You plan on keepin’ your scalp between here and wherever it is you’re goin’? Comancheros don’t care for trespassers.”

Putting up his hands and laughing nervously, Dave said, “I ain’t no Comanchero if yer worried ‘bout that. I’m jest seein’ where luck’ll take me.”

Just then, Dave’s horse shifted and Joe caught a glimpse of leather slung around the saddle horn. Quickly pulling his gun, he asked menacingly, “Where did you get the gun belt on your saddle?” His gesture with the pistol made Dave’s Adam’s apple begin to bob.

“I swapped some grub fer it. The man who had it said he wouldn’t need it no more. He…”

Hoss’ large hand struck Dave’s throat with the force of a threatened rattlesnake. Grabbing up a handful of shirt along with throat, he said, “No man trades his gun belt for grub. Especially not the man who owns that belt. Where’d ya get it?”

Dave’s arms flailed around as his lungs screamed for air.

“Stop it, Hoss! Don’t kill him!” Keeping his gun on Dave, Joe squeezed his brother’s shoulder and said, “He’s gotta tell us where Adam is!”

Hearing Adam’s name, Hoss’ grip eased up but he didn’t let go. Dave gulped cool air into his desperate lungs. “What happened to our brother?”

“Br…br…brother?”

“If you’ve killed him…”

Placing the pistol’s muzzle to Dave’s temple, Joe asked softly, “What did you do to him?”

Squeezing his eyes shut, Dave’s mind raced for a way to escape. These two men were likely to kill him even if he told the truth. There was no doubt in his mind that they’d kill him for lying.

“Well?” asked Hoss with a shake to his shirt front.

“We didn’t do nothin’ to him! Just took his money!”

“How’d you get his gun belt?” asked Joe with a savage whisper.

“We…we…decided to take him with us when we found out he was a Cartwright. We thought we could trade him fer money. Ernie said we needed somethin’ ta prove it’s him we got.”

“So he ain’t dead?” asked Hoss.

“No! I swear he ain’t!”

“Would you like to keep livin’?” asked Joe menacingly.

“Joe!” said Hoss trying to keep his brother from doing anything rash. “What he means is you can keep livin’ if you take us to where you left him.”

Dave’s eyes flitted between the angry faces of his captors. The younger one would probably backshoot him at the first chance while the big one might snap his neck if he thought he was lying. “I…I…I’ll take you there.”

“Keep an eye on him,” ordered Hoss as he went to Chubb to get a rope. Returning, he tied Dave’s hands behind his back and led him over to his horse. “Get up there.” Dave turned to give Hoss a look, but the larger man just grabbed his belt and hoisted him onto the saddle. Tying a loop around one ankle, Hoss swung the loose end under the horse’s belly; going to the other side, he tied the loose end around the free ankle. Dave realized there was no way for him to get off of the horse without help if he happened to escape.

Coming up to the horses, Joe swung into the saddle. Taking hold of the reins of Dave’s horse, he tied them to his saddle horn. “Ready to tell us how to get there?”

Dave was silent for a moment and then heard the click of a rifle being cocked for action. Turning, he saw the big man holding the rifle level with the middle of his back. Gulping, he said, “Go east ‘til I say ta turn north.”

“You will say, won’t you,” said Hoss.

Dave knew that wasn’t a question. “I won’t lead ya wrong. You’ll see!”

Joe nudged Cooch into a walk and they set out to find Adam. If this man was wrong about his brother’s location, he’d better hope he was bullet-proof. Why couldn’t they have just taken Adam’s money and left him at the pond? On the other hand, they might have killed him if they hadn’t realized he was a Cartwright. Why did people think Pa had money lying around to trade at a moment’s notice? Didn’t they know that hands and debts had to be paid and supplies and stock bought? With a snort, he thought if Pa had money lying around loose all of the time, he’d have a hard time avoiding the temptation to use it as a poker stake. Adam was more valuable than money, so any amount Pa had to spend would be worth it.

Hoss rode behind Dave, his rifle leveled at the man’s back. He’d never cold-bloodedly backshot anyone, but he’d make an exception for this man. Good thing Roy didn’t know what was happening — if he had to backshoot him, then Joe would be the only witness and he’d say it had to be done. Hopefully, Sport was home now and Pa had sent a hand into town for Roy to organize a posse. By the time they made it to the pond, they’d have Adam back and be on their way home. Adam’s captors better have made their peace with the world before going to sleep — it wasn’t likely that they’d see dawn.

“Head north here.” Dave’s order brought Joe and Hoss out of their thoughts.

“How far?”

“There’s a cabin ‘bout five miles up. That’s where he is.”

Joe frowned — this couldn’t be as easy as they thought. Sneaking up on men sleeping around a campfire, unprotected in the open, would have been easier. Now they’d have to find a way to lure the men out so Adam could escape.

Finally reaching the edge of a clearing, they could see a glow from the cabin’s window. Dismounting, Joe tied Dave’s horse to a tree and checked the knots that held the man’s hands. With a savage jerk, he tightened a knot that felt loose and ignored the man’s harsh intake of breath.

Hoss still sat on Chubb, looking at that glowing window. Adam was probably tied in there with a gun on him to make sure he didn’t try to escape. They needed a plan to get the men out of the cabin so one of them could go in and get their brother.

“Joe,” Hoss called softly, “I got an idea.”

*****

Dickie pressed down on Adam’s shoulders as another convulsion started. The heat coming from his body could surely cook a pot of beans. The sheets had been soaked through with sweat but the fever wasn’t going down. Adam’s hand was swollen so big that Dickie was surprised it hadn’t split open. The convulsion finally stopped and Adam panted from the exertion.

Dipping the cloth into the cool water in the bucket, Dickie gently mopped the sweat from Cartwright’s face. All Ernie cared about was the ransom; he kept saying it didn’t matter if the hostage died. To Dickie, it did matter — they were promising to give this man back to his Pa after the money had been handed over. If something happened after the hand-over, a judge would surely be nicer knowing they’d given their hostage back to his family unharmed. That little scorpion might cause big problems.

Ernie’s snores practically echoed in the cabin. Dickie didn’t mind staying awake — someone had to make sure there was hot coffee on the stove and that their hostage survived. Their mother had always put a pot of coffee on before going to bed; she never knew what time of night their pa would come back from bartending at the saloon. He’d been a good man, a respected member of the town, and a deacon in the church. He taught his sons to read the Bible, showed them how to care for their horses, and expected them to help their ma when asked. Their world had been shattered when a robbery went bad at the saloon and their pa was killed; Ernie had been 10 and now was the man of the house. The church took up a collection for them, but ma didn’t want to depend on other people’s charity. When she died a year later, Ernie said he stole so Dickie wouldn’t have to do without, and before long, the two young men began roaming far and wide with no goal in particular. Dickie said it was wrong to steal, but Ernie insisted it was all right when someone had plenty to share with those who didn’t, even if they didn’t agree to share it. Ernie always complained that his younger brother was too soft and cared too much about other people. They were the only ones looking out for them — no one else was.

A moan from the black-clad man brought Dickie out of his memories. “Yer gonna be okay. Jest hang in there.” Hopefully, this man’s family cared enough about him to swap the money for him. Wringing the cloth, he placed it on Cartwright’s forehead.

Fighting sleep, Dickie got up and poured himself some coffee. Pacing the cabin, he wondered how they got from rustling a few head of cattle to holding a man for ransom. Hearing a noise on the roof, he looked at the ceiling; it was possibly just some critter trying to avoid getting eaten. Going back to the bed, he looked down at Cartwright’s face — his cheeks, eyelids, and lips were twitching and the swollen hand tried to form a fist. He wished he could do something to make the man stop moaning. The way he cradled that hand across his chest made Dickie feel sorry for him.

Dickie’s nose twitched at a strange smell and he sniffed the air. Taking in a deep breath, he looked around with furrowed brows. Going over to the stove, he checked the coffee pot and the oven. Sniffing again, he looked at the fireplace and saw smoke starting to waft into the room. “Ernie!” Hearing no response, he shook his brother and frantically called his name.

Not happy to be awakened in such a manner, he replied, “What?!?”

“We gotta git outta here! There’s smoke!”

Sniffing the air, he realized his brother was right. Grabbing up his hat and gun, he said, “Let’s go!”

“What about Cartwright?”

“What about him?”

“We can’t leave him here!”

“Why not?”

“His family’s gonna expect him to be okay!”

“That ain’t our problem as long as we git the money. You stay here if you wanna, but I’m gettin’ outta here!”

Flinging open the door, Ernie hurried outside to see a small fire and Dave on a horse with a rope around his neck. Who could have done this? This meant Cartwright’s family wasn’t going to get the message now. Taking his holster from his shoulder, he pulled the pistol and warily approached Dave. A deep voice called out, “Drop that gun if you don’t want your friend to die!”

Anger began a slow boil in Ernie’s gut and was working its way up to his brain. Dave hadn’t been smart enough to get that note to Cartwright’s family; why did he deserve to live? Either the stranger was going to kill him or he could do it himself. As anger’s steam reached his brain, he leveled the pistol at Dave’s chest.

When Ernie went out, Dickie got busy untying Cartwright from the bed. He was so intent on his work he was completely startled by loud, fast footsteps. Looking over, he saw a very angry man in a green jacket pointing a pistol at him. “What did you do to him?”

“N…nothing!” Seeing the man’s face harden, he added, “I swear!”

Motioning with the gun, the man said, “Get away from him.” Dickie put his hands up and slowly side-stepped across the room. Keeping his pistol on his brother’s captor, Joe moved to the bed and sat on the edge. He quickly scanned his brother’s pain-filled face, saw a large, bruised lump along his jaw, and took in the grotesquely swollen hand. “How did this happen?”

Dickie felt his knees shaking under the cold glare from those green eyes. “He…he…he fell on a scorpion.”

Before Joe could ask another question, a shot rang out. Both Dickie and Joe went to the door—Dave was bleeding from a hole in his chest and his horse was rearing in fear, held back by the rope still tied under its belly. Breaking free, the animal ran, leaving Dave swinging from the tree. The sight of Dave hanging from the tree brought bile to Dickie’s throat. Ernie saw that a rope encircling Dave’s chest was tied to the tree limb; the neck rope was tied to the chest rope. Whoever had tied Dave had been bluffing about hanging him.

“Drop the gun!” the deep voice boomed out.

Ernie shot randomly, hoping to hit whoever was out there. Joe placed the muzzle of his pistol against Dickie’s temple and said, “Tell him to stop.”

Panicking, Dickie yelled, “Stop it, Ernie! I don’t wanna die!!”

Spinning around, an enraged Ernie saw his younger brother being threatened. Raising his pistol, he fired. Dickie fell to his knees as Ernie fell face-down.

“He shot me! My own brother!” screamed Dickie.

Hoss stepped out from his hiding place with his rifle still smoking. He’d had to back shoot Ernie — he thought he meant to shoot Joe. Looking at Dave swinging from the tree, a pang of guilt went through him; he hadn’t meant for the man to hang, it’d just been a bluff. He thought the man would toss his gun down rather than kill his partner. And Joe’s man said the backshot man was his brother. Hoss couldn’t believe the man deliberately shot his own brother. Going to the cabin, he squatted down beside Joe, who was checking over his man.

“Are you…his…brother…too?” the dying man asked.

“Yeah.”

“Lucky to…have…a…brother….like…” Dickie died before he could finish his thought.

Hoss sighed and shook his head. “How’s Adam?”

“He looks pretty bad.”

They went in the cabin and Hoss was shocked by Adam’s swollen hand. Placing a large hand to his brother’s forehead, he winced at the heat coming from the fever. Noticing the drenched bedding and the smell of stale sweat, he said, “Get some water, Joe.”

While Joe did that task, Hoss gently touched the bruising along Adam’s jaw. The size of it looked like it might have been from a boot. Looking at his brother’s hand, he gently removed it from his chest and winced at the swollen flesh. Looking at the palm, he noticed the bruising around the puncture. “If this is how you go about gettin’ outta roof repairs, just tell us ya wanna work inside.” His attempt at humor fell flat when he heard his brother whimper from the pain.

“I’m sorry this happened to ya. If I’d known that goin’ to the pond would’ve ended up like this, Joe and me wouldn’t’ve let you go alone. Know what? After you left, we came up with a plan to sneak up on you and toss you in. When we got there, we looked for ya but didn’t see you anywhere. I thought you were in a tree laughin’ at us. We came for you as soon as we found your wallet. Me an’ Joe are gonna get you home, don’t you worry.”

Joe came in with the water and Hoss unbuttoned the sweat-soaked shirt as Joe wiped their brother’s face and neck with the cool water. Hoss bathed Adam’s chest while Joe gently held the injured hand. “Should we wash this?” Joe asked.

“I don’t wanna add to the pain by touchin’ it more than we have to,” Hoss replied.

Finishing up, Hoss said, “I’m gonna fix us somethin’ to eat.”

Joe had brought his canteen inside with him and gently lifted Adam’s head to help him drink.

There were still beans in the pot on the stove, so Hoss scooped those out onto a couple of plates before looking for more food. Putting some jerky into a pan of water, he made a broth for Adam. He looked through the cabinets and found some potatoes they could eat raw. He took the plate of beans to Joe and said, “Eat up an’ we’ll head for home.” Both of them ate in silence. Joe went to the stove and poured some of the jerky broth into a cup and brought it to the bed; he helped Adam take it in.

Hoss hastily washed the dishes and cleaned the pot while Joe buttoned Adam’s shirt and carefully made a sling to hold the swollen hand against his chest. Then he went to ready Chubb and Cochise for the trip home. When he came back in, Hoss said, “I’m gonna go bury those three.”

“I’ll help you.”

“Stay here. I don’t plan on buryin’ ‘em too deep.”

Joe paced the cabin hoping Hoss wouldn’t take too long. Pacing towards his brother, he saw Adam’s body begin to tremble and then spasm. He quickly laid his weight against his chest and pressed against his shoulders to keep his upper body against the bed; he placed his hands on either side of his face. “Adam! It’s okay! Lie still!” Joe was about to yell for Hoss when the convulsion stopped; Adam panted for breath and weakly said, “Get off,” before passing out.

Getting the damp cloth, Joe said, “You gave me a scare, brother. We’re gonna get you home, don’t worry. We should’ve gone to the pond with you instead of teasing you for wanting to have some fun. You could’ve read a book and Hoss and I could’ve fished. Um…about that book in your saddlebag…I had to tear out a page to send Pa a note. I’ll buy you a new one if you want me to.” Adam’s breathing evened out as Joe continued sponging his face.

Hoss came back in and said, “Let’s get him on Chubb and head home.”

As Hoss carried their brother out, Joe said, “I’ll get those horses when we’ve got him settled.” Between the two of them, they got their brother on the big Morgan and Hoss mounted up behind him.

The sun was peeking over the horizon as they headed for home. Hoss steadied Adam against him with a large hand close to his brother’s heart. The morning air was cool, but Adam was still burning from fever. Hoss knew it was going to be a long ride home.

They rode in silence except for the creaking saddle leather and the horses’ snorts. Looking over, Joe was surprised to see Hoss putting his hat on Adam. Noticing his brother’s raised eyebrow, Hoss said, “I thought it’d be best to keep the sun off his face.” They’d left the black hat back at the lake since their priority had been getting Adam back. Touching his chest pocket, Joe patted his brother’s wallet for reassurance.

Hoss wished he hadn’t had to kill that man, but he thought Joe was likely to get shot. Adam would’ve wanted those men to get a trial and whatever punishment a judge and jury would find appropriate. Those men had been willing to let Adam die so long as they got some money. If it hadn’t been for that man coming into their camp last night, Pa might be getting money together to get Adam back.

A muttered, “Cold,” caught Hoss’ ear. That was the first thing he’d heard his brother say since they’d found him.

Joe still felt numbed by the way those men had died. A brother killing a brother out of anger. Adam had accidentally shot him once and felt tremendous guilt for it. That man—Ernie was it?—hadn’t hesitated when he saw him holding his brother at gunpoint. What had he expected to gain by shooting his brother? If he’d been the leader, then he probably expected Adam to die and planned to live high on Cartwright money. Looking over, he saw Hoss holding Adam tightly against him. “You wanna switch soon?”

“Chubb’s doin’ good, so I’ll keep him a while longer.”

“If we go west, we’ll go by the pond. I put in that note we sent by Sport that we were leaving from there. If Pa’s out looking for us, he’s likely to go there. Besides, we can rest there and let Adam lie in the shade for a while.”

Hoss thought on that a bit. Joe had a good point — Pa was likely to start looking for them at the pond. He wondered if he’d have Roy with him. At least the bodies had been buried so the lawman wouldn’t see he’s shot that one man in the back. He was sure the man had meant to shoot Joe and couldn’t risk his younger brother’s life recklessly.

Hours passed as the sun rose higher. Neither Hoss nor Joe remembered the ride taking so long. Up in the distance, the pond shimmered in the sunlight.

A voice boomed out and both were relieved to hear Pa. Joe waved his hat and yelled back. Three men could soon be seen galloping towards them.

Ben, Roy Coffee, and Paul Martin rode up and Ben was surprised to see Hoss holding a slumped Adam. He didn’t see any blood or evidence of wounds, except for the arm in the sling and the ugly lump and bruise under the jaw. “What happened?” asked Paul.

“Scorpion,” said Joe.

“Let’s get him down in the shade where I can examine him,” advised the doctor.

“His hand’s swollen real bad,” said Hoss. “Wouldn’t it be better to get him home?”

“Let Paul look him over,” said Ben.

Tethering the horses in the shade, Hoss let Pa and Joe get Adam off of Chubb and lain out in the soft grass. Carefully removing the sling, the doctor looked at the swollen hand; Ben winced at the sight. Adam moaned in pain and tried to pull his hand back.

“He’s been runnin’ a fever and had a fit,” said Joe. “Is he gonna be okay?”

Ben motioned for Hoss and Roy to step away to talk. “Your note said Adam had been robbed and taken. How did this happen?”

Looking at his boots, Hoss replied, “We were workin’ on one of the line shacks when Adam suggested a break. He ended up comin’ here while Joe an’ me stayed at the shack. When we got here, Sport was here but Adam was gone. We found his hat and wallet and realized he’d been taken. The men who took him were rustlin’ cattle but decided to take him when they realized he was a Cartwright. They planned to ransom him.”

“Where are they?” asked Roy looking at the unfamiliar horses.

“One of ‘em killed both of his partners. I had to shoot him because he tried to shoot Joe. I buried all of ‘em before we left.”

“You were lucky to find Adam,” said Ben.

“One of the men was headed for the Ponderosa with a ransom note for you. He came into our camp and we convinced him to take us to Adam.”

“Good thing you boys are persuasive,” said Roy. “I’ll take their horses and head back to town. There’s nothin’ for me to do out here.”

“Thanks for coming with me,” said Ben.

“That’s my job. I hope Adam’ll be all right.”

Ben and Hoss walked back to where Paul was examining Adam. Joe was hoping the doctor could explain his brother’s condition. “He’s been stung by scorpions before and never been like this. None of us have.”

“It might have been a type he’s never been stung by before,” offered the doctor.

“Will he be all right?” asked Ben.

“We’ll have to wait and see. Right now, we just need to keep him cool and see that he drinks plenty of water.”

“Would it be okay to camp here?” asked Hoss.

“I don’t see why not,” replied Paul. “There’s plenty of water and shade from these trees. You can keep him more comfortable here than in a saddle.”

“Aren’t you staying?” asked Ben with a trace of fear.

“I’ve got other patients to see and there’s not much I can do for your son.” Seeing the panicked look in the Cartwrights’ eyes, Paul added, “That doesn’t mean he’s going to die. There’s just not anything I can do to make him more comfortable. Help him drink plenty of water and keep him cool. The fever will break and the swelling will go down. I’ll call at the house in a couple of days to check on him.”

“Thank you,” said Ben as Paul walked to his horse.

After seeing the doctor off, Ben walked over to the tree and sat with his back against the stout trunk. Hoss gently maneuvered Adam and placed his brother’s head in their father’s lap. Ben fidgeted with his son’s collar and adjusted the sling over and over.

“Don’t you worry, Pa. Adam’s tough. No little scorpion is gonna keep him down,” Joe declared.

Ben flashed a weak smile at his sons. Adam might be tough, but every man had a weakness.

Joe and Hoss began gathering wood for a fire as the sun began its descent to the horizon. Ben was dozing, supported by the tree. He dreamed fitfully of a small boy, gasping for breath after being stung by a bee. None of the men or women in the wagon train could calm the child enough that he’d stop gasping for air. Within a half hour, the boy had died. Ben had tried to explain to his son what had happened, but it didn’t make sense that something as small as a bee could kill a child. For weeks after, he was afraid to let Adam out of his sight — what if he wasn’t there to protect him from something? Inger had finally made him see reason and allow Adam to again leave the nest to play with the other children.

Joe and Hoss talked softly to each other as they gathered the wood. Both had been disturbed by Ernie killing Dickie so cold-bloodedly.

“Do you think he was aiming at me?” asked Joe. He could understand the shot going wild and hitting the man he held rather than a deliberate murder.

“I suppose so,” said Hoss.

“But you don’t know.”

“All I do know is that he was pointing his gun in your direction. I couldn’t take a chance that he’d shoot you.”

“Why would he turn against his own brother?” Joe had had his share of disagreements with both of his brothers, but he couldn’t imagine killing either of them.

“Maybe he was just a bad seed. Some folks out there are just plain bad. It doesn’t matter how much love they’ve had in their lives, they’re just bad deep down.”

Both went back to gathering wood in silence.

A weak voice tugged at Ben’s ears, bringing him out of his fitful slumber. Cold and hungry were the only words he caught. “You boys get the fire started and make some broth. Your brother’s hungry.”

Hoss and Joe came running to the camp and dropped their loads. In the golden light of sunset, they saw a faint smile on their brother’s lips as he looked at them through half-opened eyes. “Plan didn’t work,” Adam said softly, followed by a faint chuckle. His eyes closed yet the trace of a smile remained.

“What did he mean?” asked Ben looking to his sons for an explanation.

“We um…well we…you tell him, Hoss.”

“We were gonna sneak up on him and toss him in the pond.”

Ben looked down at his son’s face in the soft light. If only getting tossed into the pond had been the worst of his worries yesterday. With a bemused look at Hoss and Joe, Ben said, “It wouldn’t have worked anyway. Haven’t you two figured out that you can’t outsmart your brother?”

Joe flashed Pa a smile and prodded Hoss on the shoulder to help him with the fire. Their brother was safe and would hopefully be his old self soon. And there’d be more shacks to repair before winter arrived. They’d have plenty of time to figure a way to outsmart their older brother.

***The End***

Author’s note: The Arizona bark scorpion has a habitat range that includes Arizona, New Mexico, California, Nevada, Utah, and northern Mexico. Its preferred environment is a damp one where it can find insects to eat. This scorpion’s sting, though rarely fatal, can cause the symptoms described in this story.

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