Delusions (by EPM)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  10,500


 

I only know one thing that’ll bring Ben Cartwright walkin’ right to us.” Sam Morgan spit the name out as if it were poison. “A son. And it don’t matter to me which one. I’m only interested in usin’ one of ’em as bait.”

Morgan’s hatred for Ben had never been a secret but its reasons were obscured by the past. While Sam would rile against Ben at every opportunity, his nemesis refused to talk about it. Even his sons had little knowledge of the incident that had soured Sam Morgan against their father forever.

“This is an ideal time. Ben’s gone to Reno and won’t be back for a week, the way I hear it. We’ll grab one of his kids and he’ll come on the run.” Morgan’s face twisted into a cruel smile.

One of his men spoke up. “You sure you wanna mix with old man Cartwright? I’d rather take on a bear when he finds out you got one of his boys.”

“I ain’t afraid of Ben Cartwright and I told ya, he’ll come to us on my terms. Now mount up. I want to be close when them boys ride out in the morning.”

*****

“We should be back by lunchtime. As soon as we move those cows and new babies in with the others, we’ll give you a hand with the horses.” Adam stood up in his stirrups and stretched out his back. “Be careful with that hammerhead roan.” Hoss nodded at Adam’s remark.

“When will you two ever stop treating me like a little kid?” Joe huffed.

Adam and Hoss knew Joe’s anger was just a quick burst. They looked at each other than back at Joe and replied in unison, “Never.” Giggling like two schoolboys, they reined their horses around and headed toward the west.

Joe stared after them, an affectionate smile replacing the anger. He didn’t feel the eyes that followed him as he mounted and rode toward the breaking corrals.

*****

“Ok Morgan, which one do you want?” One of Morgan’s men raised his rifle and sited it first on one Cartwright brother than the other. They had decided it would be easier to accomplish their task on the open range.

“Take down the big one. We’ll bring the other one with us,” Morgan answered.

The brothers were at opposite ends of the meadow when the shot rang out. Adam had been pushing a small band of mothers and young ones toward Hoss’ bunch. He looked up as the startled cattle scattered in different directions. He didn’t see his brother fall but he did see a riderless Chubb standing quietly next to Hoss’ still body. He swallowed the bile that rose up in his throat, pushed there by fear. He leaned forward and put Sport into a gallop. Racing across the meadow, the big chestnut planted his feet and stopped next to his stable mate as his rider flew from the saddle.

Adam threw himself to his knees next to his brother’s side. He saw the deep furrow made by a single shot. It made a neat opening about three inches long, just above Hoss’ left eye.  Blood poured from the wound. Adam pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wadded it against the deep laceration. As he worked to bring the bleeding under control, he spoke in a soft, encouraging voice. “Come on now Hoss. Wake up for me. You wouldn’t leave me all by myself with these ornery cows, now would you?” His pleading was met with silence.

Adam rose and spun around. He wanted his canteen, hoping the cool water would bring his brother around. He heard rather than saw the riders as they approached. He looked up to see four men, all with guns drawn. Knowing he didn’t stand a chance and that Hoss’ life might be at stake, he kept his hand away from his gun. He recognized Sam Morgan right away.

With undisguised fury, Adam looked at Morgan and asked, “Why? Why shoot down my brother? He never did anything to you.” He stepped toward the still mounted man.

Morgan kicked out, striking Adam in the chest. He went down but quickly regained his feet. He stood with a slight hunch to his shoulders and his left hand splayed across his breastbone.

“I don’t give a damn about yer brother and I don’t give a damn about you. I just want yer old man. And you sonny, are the easiest way for me to get to him.”

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Adam dropped his hand to his side and stared up at the man who had hurt his brother. “If you touch my father or if my brother dies, you’ll be stretched out cold next to them.” Sam Morgan had no doubt that the threat was real. He’d watched Ben’s eldest son through the years and knew that he was a man of his word.

Morgan looked at his companions and said, “Take him.” The three men dismounted and surrounded their victim.

Desperate to get Hoss some help, Adam was ready to bargain. “Listen, if I go quietly, will you let me help my brother first?”

“You don’t listen too good, do you, boy? I said I don’t care about your brother. Now mount up or we’ll do it for ya.” Morgan moved his horse closer to where Adam stood.

Adam knew there was no way he could win this fight but he had to try something. “Alright Morgan, I’ll go with you.” He let them take his gun and headed quietly toward the horses. As he approached Chubb’s side, he reached back and slapped the black’s rump. Chubb responded and was soon running toward home. Adam had just managed to grab Sport’s reins.

With an angry growl, Morgan kicked his horse forward. Adam attention was focused on Hoss. He didn’t see the stock of the rifle coming at his head. But he felt the blow and was instantly swallowed by the darkness that followed.

*****

Ben Cartwright went over and over Joe’s telegram in his head. He had barely gotten to Reno when he received it.

Pa

Come home. Hoss hurt. Adam missing.

Joe

 

What could possibly have happened? Hoss had no enemies and why would anyone take Adam? His head ached with too many questions and no answers. He had ridden hard but by the time Ben reached home, it had been three days since his two oldest had been attacked. Buck slid to a stop in front of the Ponderosa’s veranda. Ben hoped one of the hands would see Buck and take care of him.

*****

Coming into the great room, Ben saw Joe sitting in the familiar blue chair. His son walked across the room and sank into his father’s arms. “Pa, I’m so glad your home.” Ben could feel the slender body shake with emotion and relief.

“I’m here now, boy,” Ben said.  Holding Joe at arm’s length, he asked, “Hoss?’

“Doctor Martin said he’s gonna be fine; he needs to rest. The bullet creased his head and it bled a lot.”

Ben took a breath then said, “And Adam?”

“We still don’t know too much. He and Hoss went out to round up those cows and calves and bunch them with the rest of the herd. I stayed home to work with the new horses. Adam said they’d be home around noon. I didn’t think anymore about it until I saw Chubb running flat out toward the barn.” Joe stopped to catch his breath than started again.

“I rode with a couple of the hands to where they were herding the cows. Thought maybe old Chubb just got tired and decided to come home.” The tears that had receded were back with the memories of what he had seen. “We found him—we found Hoss. Someone had shot him and there was no sign of Adam. Only—“

Ben froze. He knew he had to ask but he was afraid of the answer. “Only what?”

“We found Adam’s hat. The inside was covered with blood.” Joe felt his father stagger abit. “Pa, sit down for a minute–please.”

 “No –I’m fine. I want to see Hoss.” Ben broke away from his son’s grasp and headed toward the stairway.

The curtains had been drawn to shut out the painful light. Hoss sat propped up against the massive headboard, his color pale beneath the summer tan. But it was the same gentle, reassuring voice that Ben had come to count on so much. He couldn’t imagine his life without this son. A pain struck at his heart— without any of his sons. He sat in the chair already pulled close to the bedside. “Are you alright son?” Ben asked. Unconsciously he stroked Hoss’ hand.

“Yeah Pa, I’m alright, just a headache, but it’s gettin better now.” Hoss glanced at Joe than back at his father. “Joe told you about Adam?”

A chill caught Ben off guard and a small tremor ran through him. “Yes, he did. We’ll find Adam and bring him home. I don’t want you to worry.”

“I don’t remember anything Pa. Adam and I had started to round up them cows and that’s all I know.” Hoss squeezed his eyes shut. The pain in his head and the fear in his heart merged and left him exhausted. “I hate layin’ in this bed!

“I know you do, son, but you’re not ready to get up yet. You need to get well first.” Ben smiled down at Hoss. “Adam would be pretty mad at me if I let you out in this condition, wouldn’t he?”

Hoss’ shoulders slumped forward and he returned his father’s faint smile. “Yes sir, I guess he would. That’s one of the few times you ever see Adam get riled up. When he disagrees with you about somethin with Joe or me. Seems he can’t help bein the older brother.”

“No, son, he can’t.” Ben’s voice caught.

Joe rose from the chair by the window and stood behind his father. He placed his hands on both shoulders. The physical contact brought the much needed comfort he’d sought since this whole episode began. With Adam gone and his father away, both he and Hoss missed the two men that had steadied them their whole lives. They took solace in being together.

*****

He didn’t know exactly how long it had been but he guessed that at least three or four days had gone by. Adam closed his eyes and leaned back against the rough wood of the log walls. His captors had let him go outside to relieve himself and untied him long enough to eat and drink. Other than that, his hands were bound behind him at the wrists. Just when he was glad for the numbness that replaced the pain in his hands, they would untie him and the blood would rush back into the starved tissues, causing the cycle to begin all over again. The blood from his head wound had long ago dried and only a dull twinge remained of the once fierce headache.

The picture of Hoss lying in the meadow kept flashing into Adam’s mind. He wanted desperately to know if his brother was alright. He hoped Chubb had gone home and Joe had found their wounded brother. Knowing there was nothing he could do for himself, the only thing he could do was hope—and maybe say a prayer.

He hadn’t seen Sam Morgan since that first day. Adam assumed that he was waiting for his father to return from Reno and he knew it would be any time now. He couldn’t get any information out of the three men who took turns guarding him night and day, so he quit trying. He thought back to the little he knew of the problems between his father and Morgan. It was something surrounding the western boarder of their property and two silver mines. He couldn’t recall anymore than that and his father had steadfastly refused to discuss the matter. Since it didn’t seem to directly effect his family and the running of the ranch, he’d let it go. The sound of hoof beats roused him from his thoughts.

Sam Morgan entered the cabin. He walked over and stood in front of Adam without acknowledging the men who worked for him. “Yer old man’s home. Time to send him a little message.” Adam cocked his head to the side and looked back at the man without saying a word.

Morgan turned to his men than gestured toward their captive. “Get him up.”

Adam didn’t struggle as two of the men helped him to his feet. “Tie him to that center post and take his shirt off.”

The evidence of his fear was plain to see but Adam refused to voice it. His heart pounded and sweat poured down his arms and chest, disappearing into the band at the top of his pants.  After stripping him of his shirt, they tied his arms around the back of the post with his feet bound to the bottom. In a manner belaying his fear, Adam said, “You might want to rethink what you’re doing. You’ll lose in the end.”

“Nah, I don’t think so, boy.” Before anymore could be said, Morgan pulled a hunting knife and sliced his captive’s arm from shoulder to elbow. Adam swallowed a scream. He threw his head back, a prolonged groan escaping through gritted teeth. Corded muscles stood out in relief. He let his head drop onto his chest, breaths coming in short gasps as he tried to get the pain under control.

With little thought to his victim, Morgan swiped the black shirt across the fresh wound, soaking it with blood. “We’ll just send this to your Daddy. I think he’ll come without any trouble.”

Adam voice was low and menacing. “You bastard! You aren’t fit to breathe the same air as my father.” His only answer was a backhand that snapped his head to the side.

“Tie his arm up. I don’t want Ben greeted by a dead son. At least not yet.” Morgan was gone as quickly as he had come.

*****

The teams rode to and from the Ponderosa at different times from sunrise until the moonlight was the only thing that lit their way home. They had started the hunt as soon as Roy Coffee was told of Adam’s disappearance. Men from town, the neighboring ranches and the Ponderosa hands all joined the search. Each morning they rode out, determined to find the missing man and each night they returned, tired and discouraged but refusing to give up.

Ben stood on the porch, coffee in hand. Despite his exhaustion, he had slept little the night before. He returned Roy’s wave as the search parties rode out once more. He knew these men had other lives and if they didn’t find Adam soon– well, they would need to get back to those lives. As soon as he made sure Hoss was alright, he and Joe would head out.

Ben shut his eyes against the stray thoughts that kept creeping into his mind. What if he never again saw his firstborn this side of the grave? Adam had been his reason for going on after Liz died. He was the reason for pursuing the dream. To think he might never again see the boy he helped to create, the man that was part of him—. The pain of it caused Ben to grab onto one of the porch posts for support. He shook his head and cursed himself for a fool. No, he thought, never! I’ll find him and I’ll bring him home. Home, where he belongs.

*****

Joe took his father to the sight where they had found Hoss. The meadow was in tall grass with a sprinkling of wildflowers. The cattle had been moved so it was quiet except for the sound of birds and an occasional chattering squirrel, a contrast to the ugliness that had taken place there less than a week ago. The tracks had been followed over and over and now had begun to fade with time.

The Cartwright men headed west, trying once more to find some sort of sign. More than once, they wished that Hoss had been with them. He seemed to be able to find tracks when everybody else had given up. They stopped where the edge of the meadow met a swift running stream. On the other side was the beginning of one of the Ponderosa’s dense pine forests. They let the horses drink their fill.

Startled by a movement across the creek, both men stared with open mouths as the familiar chestnut made his way out of the woods. Standing across the stream from them, Sport gave a nicker of greeting to his two stable mates. Not wanting to scare the sometimes flighty gelding, Joe spoke in a quiet voice. He urged his horse into the water until he was close enough to gather the trailing reins. He pivoted his mount and brought Sport back to his father. A familiar black shirt was partially visible as it hung out of a saddlebag.  Joe dismounted and pulled it out. A paper followed and fluttered to the ground. He handed the shirt to his father.

Ben stared down at the dried blood that stiffened the fabric than folded it close to his chest.

Joe turned his attention to the note.” Do you want me to read it?”

“Go ahead,” Ben said, clutching the shirt close.

Look familiar? Now don’t worry, he ain’t cut up too bad. But he will be, if you don’t do exactly what I say. Tomorrow, sun-up, at the mines. You know which mines, don’t you, Cartwright? Nobody else.

 “It’s not even signed. How are we supposed to know who’s got Adam?”  Joe’s frustration erupted in anger.

“I know.” Ben’s voice was deadly calm. “I know who has him.” He put the shirt back into the saddlebag and took the note from Joe. He saw the faded red stains blurred across the paper and crumpled it in his fist. “Mount up. We’re going home.”

*****

To Ben and Joe’s surprise, Hoss was waiting for their return sitting in a chair in his room. “I don’t mean no disrespect, Pa, but you can’t really think you should go alone to get Adam. Whoever did this will surely try to kill you and probably him too. Please don’t do it.”

Ben was angry with the man who had threatened to destroy his family and that anger exploded at anyone who got in his way. “You saw his shirt. He’s hurt already. I can’t leave him to die. I wouldn’t leave any of my sons to die.”

All of Joe’s feelings surged and it was only because of the love and respect he felt for his father, that he tried to control himself.  “You’re not being fair, Pa. We may have lost Adam already and you want us to just sit here while you walk into a trap that could get you killed? Joe’s voice shook. “Don’t ask us to do that!”

“I’m not asking you, Joseph; I’m telling you,” Ben answered. “I’m going to get Adam and I don’t want you interfering, either of you. Is that clear?”

“And we’re not even supposed to know who has him?” Joe shouted.

Ben hard stare pierced his youngest’s anger. Joe walked away and stood beside his brother. As if taking strength from Hoss’ presence, Joe spoke in a quiet voice. “I’m sorry, Pa, but you’re wrong.”

Ben looked at the fear that marked both his younger sons’ faces and knew that Joe was right. He had only been thinking of his own feelings, his own loss. Ben walked to the end of the bed and sat down hard. He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands and said, “You’re right, boys. I’m sorry.” He looked up; eyes shining. “It’s Morgan—-Sam Morgan. He’s the one who has Adam.”

Hoss spoke up. “But why, after all this time? You and him have been feudin’ forever. Why now?”

“You’ve never told us much and we didn’t push you. Figured it was something that happened in the past and you wanted to keep it that way. But it’s different now; he’s got Adam.” Joe waited for his father’s response.

Ben got up and walked to the window. “Along time ago, before you were born, Joe, Morgan bought the land that borders on the western part of our property. He worked hard and seemed to be a good neighbor. We even helped each other in those early times. But Sam was always impatient and he wasn’t willing to wait on the land and the stock to grow. When the silver strikes started, he was sure there was a mother lode on his land and there was. It gave him everything he thought he wanted. All but one thing.” Ben knew the outrage that would be coming from his youngest when he continued the story. Looking only at Joe now he said, “Your mother.”

 Ben watched as Joe’s face lost its color and the muscles of his jaw tightened.  “What’s my mother got to do with this?” he asked.

Ben continued. “Morgan always admired your mother but I never felt it was anything more than that. Neither did she. About a year or so after you were born, I was away for a few days on a business trip. You three boys were here with Marie and Hop Sing. Your mother assured me she would be fine. Morgan rode over one afternoon saying that he wanted to make sure everything was alright while I was away.” Ben stopped for a moment. His voice turned hard and his eyes narrowed. “Adam was out on the range with the hands. Hoss, you were upstairs napping with your little brother. Marie went outside to greet Sam.”

Not wanting to relay the details of the incident, Ben shortened his story. “Morgan tried to convince your mother that he could give her everything she could ever want. All she had to do was to leave me and you boys. Your mother was furious and told him to get off our land. He wasn’t ready to take no for an answer until Hop Sing came out of the house with a gun. He let go of her and rode away but not before he said he’d have her in the end. Of course she told me what happened when I came home. I made a visit to Morgan and when I left, he swore he’d get back at me for the beating I gave him.” Ben moved to the bed and sat down once more.

“When your mother died, Morgan somehow blamed me. He spent a lot of time away from his ranch and Virginia City. A few years passed and his part in our lives faded until his mines started to play out. He knew that both had veins that crossed onto the Ponderosa and he tried to buy that section from me. Of course I wouldn’t sell and he accused me of trying to ruin him. He’s been bitter ever since and now he wants revenge. And he’s using Adam to make it happen.”

Ben got up and stood in front of both of his sons. “I know you want to go after your brother and I know you’re afraid for me, but I’m asking you to trust me. I can’t take a chance with Adam’s life. Just as I wouldn’t take a chance with yours.” Ben turned to go downstairs.

Joe spoke up. “You’re asking too much, Pa.” He had lost his anger and his words came from a cool, clear place.

Without turning around, Ben said “Joseph, someday you will have a child, and when that happens, you will know that you can never ask too much.” He closed the door quietly behind him.

*****

He didn’t remember passing out but when Adam awoke, he knew it was nighttime again. The burning pain in his arm reminded him of Sam Morgan’s visit. He looked over to see that it had been tied up in a none-too-clean piece of cloth. I guess I should be grateful for that, he thought. At least they didn’t let me bleed to death. His thoughts went instantly to his father. He knew Ben would come no matter the danger to himself. If he only knew what was behind Morgan’s hatred than perhaps he could use that to his advantage. Adam closed his eyes and tried to sleep. He wanted to have a clear head when his father arrived.

*****

While both of his sons still slept, Ben saddled Buck. The barn was quiet as the animals contentedly ate their morning ration. Sport’s sleek neck arched as he reached for more hay. Ben looked at the chestnut and thought of his missing son. His mind kept repeating— hold on, Adam. Just hold on. Ben led Buck from the barn and mounted. He took a moment to look at the window of Hoss’ bedroom than turned his head so he could see Joe’s.  He could only hope they understood why he had to do this alone. Squeezing his legs on the buckskin’s barrel, he moved out.

The curtain slid back into place as Joe took his hand away. He’d made up his mind last night. He couldn’t let his father take the chance of riding into Morgan’s trap. Knowing the man had touched his mother only fueled his anger. He waited a moment than walked to Hoss’ room. He quietly opened the door and stepped in. His brother lay on his back, snoring softly. Joe walked to the edge of the bed. “I couldn’t do it,” he whispered. “I couldn’t stay here and let Pa take on Morgan by himself. I’m sorry, Hoss.” He turned and left as quietly as he came.

*****

Adam was awakened by a kick. He grunted and opened his eyes. “Get up! Your old man should be here soon.” Adam looked into the smiling face of his father’s enemy but he chose not to respond. He struggled to get up. His hands were still tied in front of him and he felt the room tilt when he moved. He pushed himself into the wall and used it to lever himself up. He closed his eyes again for a moment, hoping the spinning would stop.

Two of Morgan’s men grabbed Adam by his arms and pulled him toward the front door. The pain in the lacerated muscle blazed and tore a scream from him. Surprised, both men let him go and backed away. “Move, Cartwright,” Morgan said, “or your daddy will find his little boy already laid out.”

Adam regained his composure and walked out into the morning sunshine. “Where to?” he asked.

“Don’t you recognize this place? Right down that path is the entrance to my mines. Yer Daddy ever tell you about those mines?”

“I know the veins ran out and you tried to buy Ponderosa land to keep them going. And I know my father wouldn’t sell.” Adam continued walking. “We don’t destroy our land for profit, yours or ours.”

Morgan grabbed Adam’s arm and swung him around. “You think that’s why your father wouldn’t sell the land?” The man’s laughter sent fingers of ice up Adam’s back. “Don’t be naive. He wouldn’t sell me the land because I had his wife and that was his way of getting back at me.”

Adam’s memories of Marie, for the majority, had always been good ones. He had met her as an independent, proud eleven year old who couldn’t fathom why his father would want to bring a girl into their strictly masculine household. Sometimes their relationship seemed more like a fencing match than anything else but gradually he accepted her presence among them. It was through Marie that he’d caught glimpses of what having a mother might have been like, had his own lived. When she died, his heart cried in silence. He had two younger brothers and a devastated father who needed him and he couldn’t afford to be anything else but strong. Now the animal that stood before him dared to intimate that he had taken her and that his father knew about it.

Adam rushed forward. He tackled Morgan and brought him to the ground. His still tied hands reached for the man’s exposed throat. A tangle of arms and legs rolled in the dust. Morgan’s men pulled them apart, dragging Adam to his feet. The cut on his arm began to bleed through the bandage.

On his feet and facing his still struggling opponent, Morgan drove a fist into Adam’s gut. “Truth hurts, doesn’t it boy?” Seeing Ben Cartwright’s face instead of his son’s, Morgan took his rage out on the pinioned body before him.

They let Adam fall to his knees before pulling him up again. With a man on each side, they half pushed, half supported him as he walked. Only partially aware of his surroundings, Adam let his chin drop toward his chest.

The voice that rang through the air made him pick his head up and look toward the sound. “Let my son go!” It was his father.

Ben Cartwright stood in front of the gaping mouth of the mine. His hands rested easily at his sides. “I said, let my boy go.”

Morgan only smiled. “I’ve waited along time for this Ben. Let’s see, how many years has it been since Marie died?” The sound of his wife’s name coming from Sam Morgan’s mouth made Ben sick. His hand twitched slightly over the top of his gun.

“Marie has nothing to do with this. Neither has Adam. I’m here now. Let him go home,” Ben said, regaining his composure. “Whatever you think needs to be settled between us can be done without anyone else interfering.”

Ben’s eyes softened as he looked at his battered son. “You alright?”

“I’m ok Pa. Been hurt worse being tossed off some unfriendly bronc.” His familiar half smile lightened Ben’s heart.

 Ben turned back. “What is it you want, Morgan?” he asked.

“I want you dead and since your kid is here, he can die with you. It’ll be a while before they think to look in the mine. Enough time for me to be well on my way.” Morgan motioned for Adam to walk to his father.

“Don’t be a fool. Both my younger boys know it’s you that took Adam. Do you think they’ll let you get away?” Ben’s mind raced to think of someway for he and Adam to escape.

“The chance is worth it, Ben.” Suddenly the sickly smile vanished from Morgan’s lips and a hard light entered his eyes. “She was lovely, Ben—and she should have been mine. She would have too but you interfered. You scared her so she wouldn’t speak to me anymore.” His voice escalated as he went on. “You kept her from me!”

Adam was half-way between Morgan’s gunmen and his father. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Joe emerge from behind some rocks to the left. Morgan saw him at the same time and turned to fire. Joe’s attention was on his father; he didn’t see Morgan turn the gun toward him.

Knowing Joe was unaware of the danger, Adam shouted. That was enough for Morgan to turn his gun back to Ben. Adam ran toward his father. Shots echoed and ricocheted off granite surfaces. Both Ben and Joe fell to the ground, firing as they did. When it was over, the three gunmen lay dead, but Morgan was no where to be seen. Joe ran to the clearing where he knew their horses had been tethered but the man was gone.

Running back to the mine opening, Joe shouted, “He’s gone, Pa. I’ll go—” He stopped abruptly, all words torn away. His father was on his knees holding Adam

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close. His hands were covered with the blood that seeped from the ragged hole in his brother’s back.”

Recovering, Joe raced forward but stopped when he saw his father’s eyes. “Get my horse,” Ben said.

“Pa, I—-.”  Joe was interrupted before he could finish.

“Joseph, I said get my horse.” Ben’s voice was as hard as his eyes. Between the two of them, they were able to get Adam mounted in front of his father. Ben took his coat off and slipped it onto his son’s shirtless body. He pulled the unconscious man back so he could lean against his father’s chest. Ben felt the reassuring beat of Adam’s heart against his hand.

“Ride for the doctor,” Ben said. “I’m taking him home.” He reined Buck toward the ranch house.

Joe sat still and watched as the two men he counted on most in his life rode away from him. He reined Cochise in the opposite direction.

*****

“Will you stop fussing please? You’ve been hovering for over a week now.” Adam and Ben wore the same exasperated look.

“Well, what did you expect? I bring my son home, beaten, with a bullet through the back of his shoulder. I deserve to fuss a little.” Ben finished tucking in the quilt whether his son objected or not.

Adam’s face softened. “Come on, Pa. Tell me what’s really going on.” He sat up in bed, wincing a bit as he did, and motioned for his father to sit in the chair next to him. “It’s Joe, isn’t it?”

For a moment, the eldest Cartwright wore a look of surprise. It didn’t last very long. If anyone knew him, knew his thoughts, it was this son. Ben’s shoulders sagged and a pensive look entered his eyes. “Yes, it’s Joe.”

“I’ve noticed the distance between the two of you. Whatever it is, you need to fix it. The kid needs you and you need him just as much.” Adam waited until his father was ready to respond.

Ben leaned forward, his voice harsh when he did answer. “He could have gotten you killed! I told him to stay here—to trust me. He couldn’t do that.” He leaned back into the comfort of the overstuffed cushion. “When did he stop trusting me?” Ben said in a voice barely loud enough to be heard.

“Come on, Pa. Joe worships you but you were wrong to ask him to stay away.” Adam waited for the reaction he knew would follow.

“Wrong! I was wrong for wanting to protect you?” Ben got to his feet and started to pace. “He didn’t listen to me.”

“What are you really angry about—the fact that he came or that he didn’t listen to you?” Ben didn’t answer. “I’ll bet Joe told you that you were wrong, didn’t he? Can you imagine what a predicament you put him in—telling him he couldn’t go when he knew you could very well be killed?” He reached for his water but Ben got to the glass first and handed it to his son. A raised eyebrow and a frown clearly expressed Adam’s feelings.

“Joe and I talked this through once I was feeling better and I told him I would have done the very same thing.” Adam put his hand up when his father started to speak. “No, Pa, it’s true. He thought there was a good chance that I was already dead and to lose you too would have been more than either he or Hoss could have managed. Don’t you see, any chance to save his father was worth it to him.” Adam let his head fall back. He was beginning to tire and his shoulder ached. “Don’t blame him for what he did; try to understand his point of view.”

Ben’s anger seemed to melt away as he listened to Adam’s argument. He sat back down and reached for his son’s arm. “I couldn’t stand the thought of losing you. I would have done anything.”

Adam smiled. “So you do know how he felt?”

Ben smiled back. “I should have sent you to school to become a lawyer instead of an engineer.”

A glint entered the golden brown eyes as Adam replied, “You would’ve missed me too much.”

“Well, you’re right about that. Now how about trying to get a little rest? You’re beginning to look tired.”

Adam settled down into the warmth of his covers and turned onto his uninjured side. ”No argument from me—-this time.” When he closed his eyes; a faint smile lit his face.”

*****

Hoss entered the barn knowing Joe would be in there. “You hidin’ from Pa out here?”

Joe wasn’t in the mood for anybody’s humor at the moment and he let Hoss know it. “I ain’t hidin from anyone and that includes Pa. And if you came out here to start something, then just let me know.”

“Just hold on there, Joe. I ain’t lookin to start nothing. I was just joshin with ya.” Hoss walked closer to his brother. “What’s wrong with you anyhow—as if I didn’t know?”

Joe went back to cleaning his saddle. “I don’t think Pa’s ever going to forgive me. He thinks I was reckless and didn’t give any thought to Adam.” He looked at his older brother. “I did, Hoss, honest I did, but I thought Adam was already dead and I couldn’t stand by and let something happen to Pa. Adam and I talked it out and he understands. He even said he would have done the same thing.”

“If it makes you feel any better, I agree with Adam. But Pa, well, he was lookin at it like a father would. You and me and Adam, we can’t do that yet. Give him a little more time; he’ll come around.” Hoss was interrupted by Ben’s entrance.

“Maybe he already has.” Joe stood up when he heard his father’s voice.

Hoss turned and started for the door. “Think I’ll go see what Hop Sing’s makin’ for dinner.” Hoss smiled at his father on his way out.

Joe was glad he had been cleaning his saddle. It gave him something to look at instead of the piercing brown eyes of the eldest Cartwright. “Hi Pa”, he said, without looking up.

Ben pulled an old nail keg close to the saddle rack and sat down. “Hello, son. I wanted you to know your oldest brother set me straight on a few things.” He waited to see if Joe would answer but his youngest just looked at him. “I think I understand now why you came after me. For the same reason I went after Adam.

*****

The thought of losing someone we love is more than we can bare and being asked to do nothing about it is unthinkable.”

“I couldn’t, Pa—I just couldn’t stand by and watch you walk into something that could get you killed.” He stopped for a moment and swallowed the tears that threatened. “When I saw Adam lying in your arms and I thought he was dead or dying and it was my fault…” Joe stood up from his work. “I watched you and Adam ride away from me. I thought I’d lost the two men who’d been there for me all my life.”

Ben reached over and gently squeezed his son’s shoulder. “It’s alright now. Adam’s going to be fine and we’ll both be here as long as you need us. Ben hesitated for a moment. “And Joe, I want you to know that whatever Morgan said, your mother loved me and you boys above everything else. She would never have gone with him.”

“Yes sir, I think I always knew that,” Joe replied.

Glad that the tension between them was broken, Ben said, “How about we follow Hoss in and see what’s for dinner?”

*****

Sam Morgan shaded his eyes against the orange ball that was setting in the west. He had managed to avoid both the law and the Cartwrights since his attempt on Ben’s life. Damn his sons for getting in the way! His unstable mind had often fantasized about the children he and Marie might have had—his children, his Marie. He shook his head to make the thoughts go away. He had to concentrate on the task at hand, making Ben Cartwright pay for all those lonely years. He watched over the Ponderosa ranch house, hidden from sight. He watched and waited.

*****

Ben thought how nice it was having everyone at breakfast. Joe was his smiling self again and Hoss had been up for over a week now. The angry red line over his eye was the only reminder of the incident that could have so easily taken his life. And Adam had insisted he was well enough to get out of bed although Ben had not agreed with him. He was still pale under his dark complexion. He had been shot on the same side as Morgan had cut him, so being strapped tightly in bandages only impeded his left side. Ben watched as his son unconsciously tried to make the pain go away by rubbing his shoulder with his free right hand.

Paul Martin had told Hoss he could go back to light work but made him promise to rest if he got tired. He decided to watch Joe get thrown around by the newest horses on the ranch.

After the two men left, Adam broached the subject of Morgan with his father. His question didn’t surprise Ben. “It’s not over yet, is it?”

Ben turned away from his coffee cup and looked at his eldest. “No, I don’t think so,” he said softly. “Morgan has stepped over the line in his own mind. He’s so obsessed with Marie’s memory that he’s built up his own fantasy world. And that makes him even more dangerous.”

Adam massaged his shoulder as he spoke with his father. “Roy’s doing his best to find him but after my dealings with Morgan, I think he’ll manage to evade the posse. I’d imagine they’re about ready to give up anyway. Besides, being unbalanced gives him an advantage. We can’t think the same way he does.”

Ben’s face took on the look of worry that Adam had seen so often through the years. “I’m afraid he’ll try something and you three will be caught up in it. I can’t let this maniac endanger my family again.”

‘Pa, if it were me in your position I’d feel the same way but what are you going to do — ride around alone until he decides to take a shot at you?”

Ben got up from the table and walked into the great room. Adam sighed and followed him in. He put a hand on his father’s shoulder and said, “He’ll make a mistake and we’ll find him. In the mean time, we’ll all be extra careful.”

Ben gave his son a grateful smile. “Thank you, son. I know you’re right. I’m not very good at waiting especially when there’s so much at stake.”

“How about taking your injured son for a walk? We can go see how much trouble Joe’s gotten himself into this morning.” Together they headed for the breaking pens.

*****

Although vigilant, the Cartwrights did their best to go about a normal routine. Joe tried to forget Morgan’s insane ramblings about his mother and Hoss was feeling like his old self again. Ben buried himself in the business of the ranch while Adam was intent on getting the function back in his left shoulder and arm. Anyone who wasn’t part of the family wouldn’t have noticed the little differences — eyes that scanned the surrounding hills just a little longer or stared off into spaces where one man could ambush another.

Roy Coffee went back to doing what he needed to do, being the sheriff of Virginia City. He apologized to Ben but he knew by this time, either Morgan was long gone or he would reappear in his own time.

For his part, Morgan kept on the move until he saw that the posse was no longer in pursuit. He had let his hair and beard grow. Dirty and ragged, he now resembled the madman that he was. Finally able to stay in one place, he once again chose his mines to rest and plan his final vengeance against Ben Cartwright.

*****

It had been over two months now since Morgan’s attack on the Cartwright men and it was high summer on the Ponderosa. Adam convinced Paul that he was ready to go back to work and the family doctor reluctantly agreed. Ben frowned at the pronouncement but the look in his son’s eyes told him that his protestations would fall on deaf ears.

*****

“Joe, gimme some of that hair tonic. Maybe it’ll help me tonight.” Hoss took the bottle, sniffed and made a face.

Joe stood in front of the mirror working on his thick, chestnut mane. “Since when do you need help with Bessie Sue?” He turned and looked at Hoss. “Looks to me like you need more help with your tie than anything else.”

Just at that moment, Adam joined them in Joe’s room. “You two almost ready?” he asked.

Joe kept working on his hair while Hoss struggled with his tie. Admiring himself one more time, Joe said, “I’m ready.”

Adam slapped Hoss’ hands away from his tie and started to fix it for him. “I’d like to get there tonight and between Joe looking at his reflected glory and you and this tie, that might not happen.” With quick fingers, he had Hoss’ tie presentable in no time.

All three Cartwright brothers stopped for a moment to look into the mirror. Joe’s green eyes sparkled and a lock of his curly hair fell across his forehead, giving him a rakish look. Hoss’ brilliant blue eyes stood out in his round, open face. Ink black hair and dark coloring set off the handsome features of the eldest whose golden brown eyes gave away nothing.

Finally Hoss said, “We clean up pretty good, don’t we?” The other two answered yup and with that, all three men clamored for the stairs.

“What on earth!” came the bellowing voice of their father?

They came to a dead stop on the landing, each one running into the next until Joe, who was in the lead, almost took a header the rest of the way down. Adam grabbed his coat from behind and pulled him back to safety.

In the same tone, Ben continued. “How old are you three anyway?” He stood up and dropped the paper onto the low table in front of his chair.  Mumbling under his breath, he said, “Think you three had never been to a dance before, coming down the stairs that way.”

“Well, you know Pa, just high spirits is all,” Hoss answered, swallowing hard.

“High spirits! I thought the stairs had collapsed.”

The three of them still stood bunched together on the landing. They all had the good sense not to argue the point.

Ben modified his tone. “Well, you three gonna stand there all night?”

Hoss was the first to move, effectively pushing his two brothers into moving down the rest of the stairs. Joe and Hoss headed for the credenza. Putting on their hats and guns, they turned to say goodnight to their now smiling father.

“Good night boys. Have a good time—and behave,” Ben added.

Adam took his time strapping on his gun, not trying to hide the smirk on his face.

“Well, what have you got to say?” Ben asked.

“Me, Pa? I don’t have anything to say.” Adam put his hat on and headed to the open door. He was half-way out when he stuck his head back inside and said, “Glad to see your little boys well and happy again?”

“Out!” Ben’s voice boomed. “And see if one of you can find an acceptable woman to give me grandchildren!” He heard Adam’s laughter echo in the night.

*****

The moon cast the shadow of a man on the ground in front of the barn. Sam Morgan moved as a cat might who was stalking prey. And indeed he was. His prey was Ben Cartwright and this time he knew he’d win. He’d seen the three sons go, leaving Ben alone. Alone, except for that Chinaman. He’d interfered once before. But not this time. He’d make sure of that. Morgan stepped to the wooden porch and lost the moon’s light to the roof line. Looking in the small window, he saw the flame of a single oil lamp illuminate Ben’s face as he slept in his chair. With gun drawn, he quietly opened the front door, entered and closed it quickly behind him.  Without hesitation, the man drew close and cocked his gun at Ben’s temple.

Ben roused. Even in his half awake state, he knew that sound and sat perfectly still. Morgan moved so that Ben would know who it was that held his life so close. “Finally, Ben — you and me, no interruptions. We’ve waited along time, haven’t we?”

Ben looked into the face of a man he hardly recognized, with long, scraggly hair and beard, now more white than light brown. Morgan had lost weight. Tattered and worn clothes hung from his limbs. Ben Cartwright was frightened. Not by the gun, not by the look of the man but by the eerie light that shown in his eyes. “What now, Morgan?” he asked, keeping his voice steady.

“You and I are going for a little ride.” He motioned toward the door with his gun. “Get up!”

Ben moved slowly out of his chair. He saw a faint movement near the end of the dining room table and knew it could only be one person. Trying to keep Morgan’s attention on him, be said, “Don’t be a fool. Who do you think everyone will suspect first?”

Clouds parted and allowed the moon’s light to flood through the windows. Hop Sing stood buried in half shadows, gun in hand. They saw each other at the same time and two shots rang out in rapid succession. Ben watched as Hop Sing fell, his bullet plowing into the wall near the door. He started to move toward his old friend but stopped when Morgan’s gun pushed into his gut.

“No Ben. You can’t help him now. I sent him to Hell where he belongs.” The light in Morgan’s eyes burned brighter. “He kept Marie from going with me. She wanted to, you know, but he wouldn’t let her. Now he’s finally been punished.” The light faded. “Move!”

*****

“That Bessie Sue can sure bake a pie,” Hoss said as he unsaddled his horse. It was very late when the three brothers’ rode into the ranch house yard and led their tired mounts to the barn.

“And you can sure eat one,” Joe shot back.

“Just don’t you worry about it, little brother. I didn’t notice no gal bakin’ a pie for you.” Hoss stroked Chubb’s soft muzzle.

“Wouldn’t a mattered if they had. You would’ve eaten it anyway.” Joe’s high pitched giggle rang out.

“Since when do you care about what I eat? “Hoss stood next to Joe, dwarfing the younger man.

Sensing this silly conversation could escalate, pushed there by a little too much punch, Adam spoke up. “Ok, you two—enough. Let see if we can get to bed without disturbing Pa.”

The flame of the single lamp still burned as Adam quietly opened the front door. He turned to hush his laughing brothers than walked in. Joe and Hoss stopped to remove their hats and guns while Adam moved to the table. He lengthened the wick and the room became bathed in a shadowy light. Turning to join his brothers, he was greeted by the sight of Hop Sing, lying near the end of the dining room table.

“Hop Sing!” he called. Alerted by Adam’s cry, Hoss and Joe made their way to the fallen housekeeper.

Joe turned the little man onto his back. They watched as his eyelids fluttered open and a look of confusion covered his face. He looked at each of the boys in turn, but said nothing.

“Joe, go see if Pa’s in his room. Hoss, go get some water.” Adam took Hop Sing from Joe’s arms.

Hoss returned and placed a wet cloth on Hop Sing’s forehead. Adam had found the evidence of a deep crease above their friend’s right ear. It, like all head wounds, had bled profusely but had finally clotted. Hop Sing’s eyes started to focus when Joe came running down the stairs. “Pa’s gone.”

The Cartwright sons looked at each other then back at Hop Sing. They didn’t need to say it. They were all thinking the same thing.

“Mister Morgan come to take fatha away. Hop Sing try to stop him but not good shot.” The light from the lamp reflected his suddenly bright eyes. “You go get fatha. Hop Sing ok.”

“Hoss, wake Charlie.  Tell him what happened and have him bring back the doctor and Roy.”

Adam turned his attention back to Hop Sing. “We’ll get you to bed. Paul will be here in a little while.” Adam picked him up with little effort and took him to his room. Joe led the way with the brightly burning lamp.

“Hop Sing say to go get fatha. Not worry about me. Do as I ask, please.” He closed his eyes, a signal that the conversation was over.

Joe and Adam smiled at the stubborn attitude of the little man. “Alright, we’ll get one of the hands to stay with you until doc gets here,” Adam said. Joe smiled and patted the little man’s hand. The bothers left the room and met Hoss by the fireplace.

“Let’s go,” Joe said as he went to strap on his gun once more.

“That’s fine, Joe, but just where’re we goin?” Hoss asked. He was angry. Angry at Sam Morgan for taking his father and angry with himself for letting his guard down.

“I don’t care where we start but I’m not staying here,” came Joe’s retort.

The two brothers stared at each other for a moment than both turned to look at Adam. He stood at the sideboard, strapping on his gun. Without saying a word, he walked across the room to the gun rack. He grabbed a rifle and extra shells. “I suggest you do the same. Morgan may be a madman but that doesn’t make him stupid.” He strode to the door and walked out, leaving it open. Hoss and Joe followed suit.

*****

The sun was beginning to chase the cold of the night when Morgan ordered Ben to dismount. They were in front of the same mine where Ben had confronted him once before. “Alright, Morgan. We’re here. Now what?”

“Don’t be in such a hurry Ben. You’ll die, but it’ll be when I say.” Morgan motioned to a pile of rocks near the entrance. “Sit down.”

“You know nothing will stop my boys from coming after you. And if they find me dead, you won’t live much longer.” Ben hoped to keep Morgan talking until his sons realized he was missing. They’d know what happened and they’d know where to look for him.

“Yes, I expect they will.” Morgan hesitated and once again Ben felt a chill as the same strange light entered Morgan’s eyes. “And I’ll be waiting. You didn’t think your death would be quick and merciful, now did you Ben? Oh no, I have something special planned for you but first you’ll watch your precious boys die.”

Ben felt the blossom of fear explode in his heart. He tried to keep the tremor out of his voice. “They won’t just walk in here and hand over their guns.”

“Oh, but I think they will — if it means a chance to save their father.” Morgan tied Ben’s hands behind his back and bound his legs together at the ankles. “This time I win.” He disappeared into the mine.

*****

The three brothers stopped just short of the cabin where Adam had been held captive. Edging carefully closer, they burst through the front door, only to find it empty. “Now what?” Hoss asked. Joe just shook his head in frustration.

“The mines,” Adam said. Both men looked at him. “It makes sense,” he continued. “Morgan started this whole thing there and I think he’s just waiting for us.”

“But I thought Pa was the only one he was interested in,” Hoss answered.

“He is, but I don’t think Morgan wants Pa’s death to be easy. He wants to make him suffer and what better way than watching his children die?” Adam looked at Joe and said softy, “He’s so delusional about Marie that his own truth is all that’s real to him.”

“That’s all fine Adam but how does it help us get Pa back?” Joe asked.

“You need to convince Morgan that you came by yourself to clear your mother’s name. I’m hoping he’ll buy that until Hoss and I can get into position.”

Hoss frowned and said, “I don’t like the idea of Joe goin in there by himself. Morgan’s proved he wouldn’t hesitate to shoot one of us down.”

“I know that Hoss but Joe has the best chance of sidetracking him. He’s our only link to Morgan’s twisted world.” Adam’s own temper was close to the surface but he knew losing it would only complicate matters.

“There’s got to be some other way. It’s just too dangerous!” Hoss, more often than not, went along with his older brother’s ideas. But this time, the stakes were just too high. As much as he wanted his father alive and well, he couldn’t let Joe walk in alone.

Joe’s soft voice interrupted the argument. “Adam’s right. This is the best way.” He turned toward Hoss and said, “Look, if we all go in there at once, someone will get killed— and it most likely will be Pa. Morgan will sacrifice himself if he has to, just to see Pa dead.”

“Ok, Joe. Give us ten minutes to get into place than call out to him.” Adam reached over and squeezed Joe’s arm. “Don’t take any chances little brother. And don’t underestimate Morgan. He’ll do whatever he has to.”Adam moved away.

Hoss stepped into Adam’s place. “I still don’t like this, Joe.”

 Joe reached out with a hand and a warm smile. “I know, Hoss—I know.”

“Come on, Hoss— let’s see if we can cover the mine from both sides.” Adam moved away into the trees and boulders. With a reluctant sigh, Hoss moved toward the opposite side from his older brother.

Joe drew his gun, checked the cylinder and replaced it in his holster. He started to pace. Ten minutes turned into an eternity but he kept himself in check. Finally, he moved out.

Ben worked the ropes that bound his hands. He didn’t seem to notice as the stiff hemp cut into his wrists. All he could think of was his boys. He knew they’d come just as sure as he was that Morgan would be ready for them. He had to find a way to stop Morgan from slaughtering his sons.

“Morgan—you there, Morgan?” A cry broke the silence.

Ben’s heart lurched in his chest when he heard the familiar voice. “Joseph.” The name came out on a whisper.

Morgan crouched by the mine’s entrance. “Come on out, boy, and make sure your hands away from your gun. I wouldn’t want your Papa caught in a cross fire.”

Joe walked into the open, hands in the air. “You alright, Pa?” Joe asked.

“I’m fine but you shouldn’t have come.” Ben answered.

Joe turned and gave his father a warm smile. “We’ve been through this before, remember?”

Ben couldn’t help but smile back through his fear.

‘Well this is all very touching but where are your brothers?” Morgan quickly looked around than turned back to Joe. “I suggest you tell then to come out or your father gets a bullet in the head.”

“They aren’t here, only me,” Joe replied.

Morgan walked up behind Ben and placed his gun next to Ben’s ear. “Why don’t you just drop your gun and kick it over to me than call the other two in.” He cocked the pistol and said, “Now!”

Joe quickly got rid of his gun. “I told you, I’m alone. I wanted the pleasure of killing you myself for all the lies you told about my mother.” His voice resonated a controlled fury.

Morgan released the cocked hammer and took a step back away from Ben. “Ahh yes, you’re the youngest. Marie’s boy.” An eerie light entered his eyes once more. It seemed as if Morgan had forgotten the other two Cartwright siblings for the moment. “You coulda been mine, boy—did you know that?” Morgan’s demented laughter rang in the air. “Wait, wait—- maybe you are mine. Did you ever think of that Ben? Maybe this whelp’s mine, not yours.” Morgan threw his head back; the laughter became louder.

The inference of what Morgan had said was too much for Joe to bear. He bolted forward. The opening at the end of Morgan’s gun looked to him like the yawning pits of Hell. “So be it,” he thought, “if I’m going to die, I’ll take him with me.”

Ben and Joe watched as Sam Morgan’s body leapt into the air. His arms were raised at his sides and his back was arched. It seemed as if he hung, frozen in space, for just a moment than crashed to the ground in a crumpled heap. Both men stared at the unmoving form.

Hoss and Adam walked out into the open each giving the other a small nod. Joe untied his father and both men embraced in the joy of being alive. Ben reached out to touch his other two boys.

Hoss put his arm over Joe’s shoulder and drew him close. “Come on, Joe, let’s get outta here.”

The two men started for their horses.

Adam noticed that his father still looked pale. “You sure your ok, Pa?”

“Yes,” Ben answered, as he once again stared at Morgan’s body. “The man was caught up in what he wanted and couldn’t have. He became so obsessed with Marie that I’m afraid his delusions became his reality.”

“You almost sound as if you feel sorry for him,” Adam said.

Ben lifted his head and looked at his son. “I do, Adam. I do.” He put his hand on Adam’s shoulder and said, “Come on, let’s go home.”

***The End***

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