Options (by EPM)

Summary:  The first paragraph was written by WordsThatWill. I was so intrigued when I read it that I asked her to turn it into a story. She, in turn, generously gave it to me with the challenge “make me proud.” I hope I have done so.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  9200


They were taken hostage by two of their crew. Men who had been working on the ranch for three years. The plan: take two—kill one—make a point—collect the ransom. They had vividly detailed how they were going to butcher his brother. Suddenly, Adam plowed into Joe, fiercely ramming him into the cave wall, rendering him unconscious. “He won’t hurt you—he can’t stop you. I’m yours. Just send him back to his father.” Unemotional—impassive. It was a calculated and controlled act. A dispassionate act based on passionate devotion. This was no act at all, since the alternative reality was something he would never permit—never allow.

“OK, Cartwright, you’ve made your choice.”

Adam looked over at Joe. He was slumped on the floor of the cave, curled into himself. He looked to all the world as if he had decided to lie down and take a nap. Adam smiled when he remembered his youngest brother as a child. Joe would be a bundle of nonstop activity then all of a sudden he would lie down and fall asleep, no matter where he was. He could see the small boy in the man who now lay at his feet. Adam wished his hands were free so he could make sure he hadn’t hurt him too badly.

His eyes were still on his brother when Adam felt the blade enter his body. He turned his head sharply toward his assailant; a look of surprise entered his tired eyes. He hadn’t been ready. There hadn’t been any time to think. The cry that was torn from him echoed through the cavern as he felt the knife being twisted and pulled upward. Agony replaced surprise until emptiness replaced agony.

*****

“Hey, you had a head start. Not fair” Adam could hear Little Joe call after him as he let Sport stretch out into a ground covering gallop. Summer had flown by and bad weather was lurking just around the corner. He and Joe were riding to one of the Ponderosa’s bigger timber camps to make sure things were buttoned up for the long winter to come. There were a lot of back breaking and dirty jobs on a ranch but timbering wasn’t one of them. It was hard work but the clear air laced with the scent of pine and spending weeks at a time in the heavy forests was a treat after the dust and dirt and smell of the cattle end of the business.

Hoss had taken a little time off to go to Reno. He and some friends wanted to take in the annual rodeo that had sprung up as a rivalry between some of the bigger ranches in the area. Joe had hinted to go with his older brother but Hoss felt the need for a little time away. In truth, Joe had been hurt but his pride would never allow him to admit it. He didn’t have to. Adam knew the young man almost better than Joe knew himself. That’s when he asked Joe to go with him into the high country. They’d combine a little work at the lumber camp with the pleasure of a little hunting and fishing.

Ben waved goodbye as he watched his oldest and youngest ride away. He was grateful to Adam for asking Joe to go along with him. He knew that Adam would have been perfectly content to spend the time on his own but it was good for Joe to be in the company of his steadier, more responsible older brother. Maybe some would rub off on the boy! Ben laughed to himself. And he wouldn’t mind seeing some of Joe’s high spirits and zest for life rub off on his eldest.

The climb, for the most part, was gentle and steady. Riding in single file didn’t allow for much conversation but both brothers were content to enjoy the sights along the way. Pines and hardwoods mixed together, each contributing to the beauty that surrounded them. It was getting late when they arrived at the sawmill. The shadows of evening had begun to creep across the forest floor. “I’ll put the horses away if you’ll cook us up something to eat.” Joe had beaten him to it. Neither of the men were much of a cook but given the alternative of no supper, Adam graciously conceded. “Ok by me but you can fix breakfast.” He gave Joe a quick smile and entered the small cabin next to the mill.

Adam shut the door and threw his bedroll onto one of the near by bunks. Before he could make another move, he felt something hard being pressed against his temple and heard the familiar sound of a hammer being pulled back. He slowly raised his hands into the air. Someone from behind reached forward and took his gun. He began to lower his arms, when a voice said, “Just keep ’em right where they are. Where’s the kid?”

That voice—he knew that voice. Adam turned his head toward the sound. “I told you to stay where you were!” The gun that had been at his head now rested tightly against his spine.

“He’s outside, bedding down the horses,” Adam replied. He concentrated on putting a face to the voice. Then it came to him—Pete Johnson. But how could it be Pete? He had worked from early spring into late fall at the Ponderosa for the last three years. Disappearing for the winter months and reappearing after the spring thaw. He and his friend Bill Travis. “Travis here with you?”

“Now, you’re just too smart for your own good, Adam—always have been. You can turn around now,” Johnson said.

Adam slowly lowered his arms and turned around. Both men were standing there, Johnson grinning at him with a malicious smile and Travis with no expression at all. “Mind telling me what’s it’s all about?”

Johnson started to say something when they heard Joe’s footsteps on the porch. The gunman put the barrel of his gun over his lips. Adam understood. If he tried to warn Joe, they’d hurt his unsuspecting brother. His muscles tensed but he didn’t move. The door was partially opened when Adam heard Joe say, “I don’t hear any pans rattling. You planning on cold beans?”

“Don’t move Cartwright unless you’d like to see us take down older brother here.” Travis grabbed Joe’s arm and pulled him into the room. Seeing the gun resting against Adam’s back stopped Joe from trying anything.

“Adam, what’s…?” Joe started to say.

Johnson interrupted. “All in good time but first go stand next to your brother.” Joe hesitated. “Let me make something very clear from the beginning. Either one of you gives me any trouble, I’ll shoot the other one. Any questions?” Joe walked to Adam’s side.

Adam put a hand on Joe’s arm. “No, no questions except what’s this all about?” he asked again.

“I’ll explain while Bill ties your hands. Just so you don’t get no ideas.” Johnson walked to the long table and pulled out one of the chairs. He sat down and put his boots on the tabletop, tipping his chair back. “It’s like this. For the last three years, me and Bill have worked until our backs ached and our hands were raw. Just to make you and your old man richer. We decided there must be better way. Why should we work so hard when you got all that money and we got none?”

Joe spoke up. “My father paid you well. If you didn’t like working for us, you didn’t have to come back.”

Adam felt Joe’s body tremble with anger. “Yes, just why did you come back if you were so unhappy?” Adam asked. He kept his tone neutral trying not to instigate their captures and inflame Joe’s anger.

“We wasn’t all that unhappy, just thought of a better way to make some money. Yer old man paid us well enough.” Johnson got up and walked over to his captives. “Plus we helped ourselves to a few beeves once in a while and sold them for a little extra cash.” Both he and Travis laughed. “You remember how we tried to trail them cow thieves but never managed to catch ‘em?”

“So now what? Joe asked.

The cruel smile returned to Johnson’s face. “Well, we figure old Ben will pay a pretty good ransom for his boys if he thinks we’re serious.” He walked to within inches of the brothers. “And to convince him of that, we’re sendin’ one of you back to him with a message.” He hesitated for a moment. “Course that one’s gonna be dead but we figure that’ll show the old tyrant we mean business.”

Joe threw himself forward, catching Johnson unaware. The two men tumbled to the floor. Travis moved to help his partner. Adam dove at the man’s feet. It was enough to throw Travis off balance and away from Joe. Before Adam could get up, he felt a boot catch him across his left side rolling him onto his back. The next blow took his breath away and left him trying to right himself. Afraid for Joe, he pushed himself up to his knees. He was winded from the effort and the blows. Travis grabbed a handful of Adam’s thick black hair and wrenched his head backward. Once again a gun was at his head.

“Make one more move, Joe, and I’ll blow your brother’s brains all over this room,” Travis yelled. He pulled the hammer back and waited.

Joe’s fists stopped in midair. He had been astride the gunman, using his bound wrists as a club. Johnson pushed him away and struggled to his feet. He pulled his gun and aimed it at the center of Adam’s chest. Shaking with fury, he shouted, “What’s wrong Joe—you didn’t believe me when I said I’d kill your brother if you moved? How’s it feel to know he’s gonna die because of you?” He started to squeeze the trigger. Still on his knees, Adam was helpless to do anything for Joe or himself.

“No,” Joe screamed. “It was me, not Adam. Don’t kill him. I’ll do anything you ask. Please, just don’t kill him.” Joe’s voice started to quiver and Adam could hear the desperation.

It was as if everything stood still for a moment—no movement, no sound except the ragged breathing of the four men. Johnson gently dropped the hammer back into place and Travis followed suit, letting go of his hostage’s hair. Adam let his head fall onto his chest until he could feel his heart begin to beat normally once more.

They dragged Joe to his feet than pushed him to the floor next to his brother. “Now sit there and don’t move or I swear to God, I’ll kill you both! Johnson signaled Travis to follow him to the table.

 Joe looked guilty and mouthed the words I’m sorry. Adam smiled and nodded his head to let Joe know it was alright. They both made themselves as comfortable as possible and settled down to wait.

*****

The house never seemed emptier then when the boys weren’t there. Ben was taking his time over his second cup of coffee, a privilege he rarely allowed himself. His eyes roamed over each chair, picturing the occupant who normally sat there. Joe had been stung by Hoss’ desire to get away for a few days with his friends. Usually able to pick up on the smallest of things, this time Hoss seemed oblivious to his younger brother’s hints. Adam had not interfered but Ben remembered how his intense dark eyes watched the interchange between his two younger brothers. After Hoss excused himself to go pack his saddlebags, Adam reminded his father that the timber camp needed to be shut down before bad weather set in. That’s when he asked Joe to join him. The young man’s response had been instant and the two men spoke of where the best fishing might be at this time of year. Ben smiled as he thought of the three of them. They were different—no doubt about it and Lord knows, they could squabble and fight. And there had been some pretty tough times that had tried to pull them apart in the past. But he had no doubt they would defend one another with their lives, should it ever come to that. He was just glad they’d all be home tomorrow. The house missed them.

*****

The next morning, the brothers’ hands were tied behind their backs. That made it hard to mount and harder still to balance once they did. But their horses were being led by their kidnappers so Adam didn’t have to worry about Sport deciding to jig to the side and unseating him. They were heading away from the high country, more toward the Ponderosa. Joe looked at his brother with a question in his eyes but Adam’s only response was a slight shrug of his shoulders.

They rode for most of the day, descending from the foothills onto the flatter plains of the ranch. Both men were stiff from yesterday’s aborted attempt at freedom and the constant riding made them feel every bump and bruise. Finally they stopped and both brothers knew immediately where they were. Brush and old timbers were scattered at the mouth of the mine. More of a cave than a mine, it had been part of the Cartwright holdings since they first moved onto the land but it had played out long before that. The shoring was rotten and parts of the roof had fallen in. Adam could remember his father warning him and Hoss to stay away from it or a painful lesson would ensue. Joe was given the same message when he was old enough to start exploring.

Travis dismounted and started to clear the brush from the mouth of the cave. “Get down,” Johnson said, drawing his gun. Both men threw a leg over their saddles and slid to the ground. Sore muscles protested but their legs held them. “You got the lantern?” Johnson yelled at Travis.

“Yeah, it’s right where we left it,” he answered “and so is everything else.” Johnson motioned for Adam and Joe to walk toward the mouth of the old mine. Just inside was a box of supplies. Obviously, the two had executed their plan carefully.

They had not gone very far when Johnson told them to stop. “Sit over there, against the wall.” Adam and Joe did as they were told.

The sun was beginning to set and it took with it any warmth that was left from the day. It seemed as if the anticipated bad weather was coming faster then they thought. The two kidnappers built a fire and settled down to eat a supper of bread and beans. When they finished, Johnson walked over to his captives. “Can’t see wastin’ food on someone who’s gonna die but you can have some water.” He pulled a knife and cut the ropes that bound their wrists. “Travis, you kill ’em both if either of them moves a hair.” He handed the canteen to Joe.

“I don’t see the need for anyone to die. I know my father; he’s not about to take a chance with our lives,” Adam said. His manner was calm, his voice almost soothing.

“Yeah, yer old man sure does love his little boys, don’t he?” Johnson answered. “Sendin one of you home over yer saddle will keep the law out of things.” He stopped to sneer at the brothers. “After all, better one live son than two dead ones.”

Joe couldn’t contain himself anymore. “Go to hell. Johnson.” He threw the canteen onto the ground.

Adam stepped in front of his brother. It was not something he had to think about. It was a natural response brought on by years of safeguarding the youngest member of the Cartwright family. “Shut up, Joe,” Adam hissed through clenched teeth as he moved forward.

Travis stood next to his partner. “Me and Travis don’t care which one of you lives and which one dies. And since Ben don’t seem to favor one of you over the other, it didn’t really matter. But I’ve changed my mind.” He stared straight at Joe. “You been askin for trouble so Bill and me are gonna oblige ya. Ben’ll be mighty upset seeing his baby boy gutted like a deer.” He turned to Adam. “Make him less likely to do anything dumb so the same thing don’t happen to you.”

Adam tried to think of a way to get the gunman’s attention away from Joe. “I never thought you were stupid Johnson but maybe I was wrong.”

“I could change my mind, Adam. That what yer lookin’ to make me do?” Johnson laughed. “You always did protect little brother here. You willin’ to die fer him?”

Before Adam could answer, Johnson started to tie their hands again. “Now git over there and sit down.” The brothers did as they were told. “Just so you don’t get no ideas…” He looped a rope around their ankles and tied it off. “Sleep well boys!” They heard Johnson’s laugh recede as he walked toward the mouth of the mine.

Small shadows danced across the walls. Both Johnson and Travis were stretched out near the fire. Adam and Joe tired to make themselves more comfortable but the ropes wouldn’t allow them any mercy. They gave up and leaned into the cold, unforgiving walls.

Adam felt Joe’s body shaking next to his. He wondered if it was from the penetrating cold or from the fear of what the kidnappers had threatened to do to him. “Lean closer, Joe. Seems the only heat we’re gonna get tonight is our own.”

Joe maneuvered closer to his larger brother. “If I’d been with Hoss, I’d be as warm as Hop Sing’s biscuits right now.” Adam snorted out a soft laugh.

It was quiet again but neither brother made a pretense at sleeping. “Adam?” Joe called softly.

“Yeah?” Adam answered, turning to look at his brother. He didn’t know if it was Joe’s shivering or the fact that he was huddled close, but all the bravado that was normally a part of his little brother’s demeanor, seemed to have vanished.

“Do you think they’ll do what they said?” Joe’s voice suddenly sounded very young and Adam could hear the fear.

Adam didn’t hesitate. “No, Joe, I think they’re just trying to scare us so we won’t try anything. Besides, if something happens to one of us, Pa would never rest until he hunted them down. They know that.” Adam hoped he had sounded convincing. The truth was, he wasn’t sure what Johnson and Travis would do. But what he did know was that he’d never allow Joe’s life to be sacrificed for his own.

*****

Ben was up early and on his way to the barn. He shivered with the unexpected early season cold. He stopped when he heard the sound of hoof beats.

“Hey Pa!” Hoss gave his father a cheerful greeting as he rode around the corner of the barn.

“Hello, son. Welcome home,” Ben answered. “Did you have a good time?”

“Sure did. How’s everything here?” Hoss asked.

“Oh fine—just fine. Never realized how big the house really is until all you boys are away,” Ben answered. “Hop Sing and I get lost in there.”

“When are Joe and Adam coming back?” Hoss asked as he dismounted.

“Oh, I expect them some time today. Given the sudden change in the weather, I’d say sooner rather than later.” He put his hand on his son’s back and said, “How about having a cup of coffee with your old father?”

“I’m right behind ya, Pa. Just let me get Chubb settled down.” Hoss made his way to the barn while Ben headed toward the house.

*****

They had both been dozing when Johnson kicked the Cartwright brothers awake. Their ankles were untied and they’d been dragged to their feet. “Ok, time to send your Pa a little message,” Johnson said, looking at Joe.

Joe stood rooted in defiance. His green eyes took on a darker hue as he stared into the face of the man who threatened his life. Frantic and without any ideas of how to get them out of there, Adam lunged forward. He saw the surprised look appear on his little brother’s face as he pushed him into the unforgiving rocks. The worst part was when he heard the dull thud of Joe’s head as it collided with the wall. A wave of nausea contracted his stomach muscles and Adam thought he might retch. Recovering, he stood over his unconscious brother. He looked so young! Only he could hear the whispered words, “I’m sorry, Joe.”

His first reaction was surprise as he felt something punch him low on his left side. He’d been looking at Joe and hadn’t been ready. They hadn’t given him any time—stolen the last few moments of his life. Adam felt Johnson twist the knife within him and than pull it upward. An unearthly scream filled the mine and he knew it was his own voice that bounced through the tunnel. He didn’t feel the blade as it backed out of his torn and bleeding body. The last thing he remembered was pitching forward into the darkness.

*****

Johnson and Travis had a hard time putting Adam’s body face down across his saddle but once they did, it was easy tying his long arms and legs to the stirrups. The note they had written to Ben was stuffed securely into one of Adam’s back pockets. Only the edge of the paper could be seen sticking out from under the material. Sport was tied on a short rope to a nearby tree. The awkward load on his back increased his natural restlessness. Tired of dealing with the uncooperative mount, Johnson said, “Take this mule and let him go close to the house but not so close that anyone sees ya. I’ll stay here and watch the kid.” He looked at Adam once more. “Too bad, I really did mean to kill yer brother, but then, I guess you knew that.” Travis mounted his horse and Johnson handed him the chestnut’s reins.

Sport had been agitated since the strangers put the cumbersome load on his back. He tried to charge the horse next to him and bite at the rider but stopped when he saw the familiar sight of home. Travis tied the reins together and threw them over the animal’s head. He yelled something but Sport didn’t move. It wasn’t until the man slapped his flank that the horse galloped toward the safety of home.

Sport stopped short of the open barn doors. He turned his head to look at the burden he carried. His nostril widened as he took in the familiar scent. He gave a quiet snort and called softly but there was no answering voice. The tired animal walked through the open doors.

Hoss heard a horse coming in but didn’t turn around. He was busy grooming Chubb and looking forward to getting out of the cold. The thought of sharing a cup of coffee with his father made him smile. “Come on in, whoever you are and get warmed up.” When he didn’t hear an answer he turned his head to look over the stall door. The brush he’d been holding fell to the floor. His knees suddenly buckled and he would have fallen if not for grabbing onto Chubb for support. His mouth formed his brother’s name.

Recovering, he ran to where Sport stood patiently waiting. Hoss cradled Adam’s head in his hands. “Oh, Adam, no….”  Not knowing if there was any life in his brother, he started untying the ropes that bound Adam to his saddle. Hoss repeated over and over, “Please—please;” a prayer and plea blended and offered to whomever might be listening.

Ben, waiting for his middle boy to join him, began to wonder if there was something wrong with his son’s horse. Mumbling as he went, Ben bundled back up and headed for the barn. He heard Hoss’ voice and he knew before seeing him, that something was very wrong. Ben stopped, unable to comprehend the image before him. Adam’s head and arms dangled freely at Sport’s side. Hoss was on the other side, trying to untie the knots that still held his brother’s legs captive. Ben walked forward on trembling limbs.

“Sport just came walkin’ in.” Hoss continued to fight with the rope. “I can’t get the knots untied. Help me Pa. Help me get Adam loose.” Ben heard the desperation in Hoss’ voice. The two men worked together and loosened the last of the tethers. Adam’s legs swung free. Together, father and son gently pulled until the balance of weight shifted toward them. Carefully, they placed Adam on the barn floor between them.

Ben held his son’s head close to his chest while Hoss fumbled with his brother’s jacket. Finally, in frustration, Hoss ripped the material away. He did the same with the sodden black shirt. Part of his mind told him not to listen, not to feel for the heartbeat that might not be there. He splayed his large hand across the center of his brother’s chest only to feel the cold unmoving skin beneath his palm. He looked at his father, not knowing what to say. Whatever it was, however he said it, Hoss knew that he would be destroying his father’s world.

Ben bent his head and placed his cheek against the soft black hair. Hoss didn’t have to say the words. The small bundle that had been Ben’s light during a time when he thought he’d dwell in darkness forever was gone. “I love you, son. Know that I loved you always.”

 Startled, Ben heard angry words filling the air. “You stop it now, Adam. Stop playin’ around.” Hoss pulled Adam out of his father’s arms and shook him. “You’re scarin’ Pa and yer makin’ me mad.”

Ben took a hold of the distraught man’s shoulders. “Hoss—Hoss, look at me. Lay your brother down.” The tears flowed freely from Ben’s dark eyes. He waited for Hoss to look back at him. “It’s time for Adam to rest now.”

Hoss stared at his father for a moment than looked down at his beloved older brother. He gently laid Adam down, bending until his head rested on his brother’s chest. “I’m sorry, Adam. I ain’t really mad at ya. Please…” Ben heard the sounds of the small boy who had worshiped his older brother in Hoss’ voice.

For a few moments there was nothing but quiet sobbing then, “Joe.” Hoss raised his head and looked at his father, waiting to hear more. They both looked down. Adam’s eyes remained closed but his lips formed the words around a whispered breath, “Little Joe.”

“Adam—Adam.” Ben held his son’s cold hand next to his heart.

Hoss dropped his head once more. The sound of his own heartbeat pounded in his ears. “I think so Pa but it’s so fast…”

Father and son worked together to bring Adam into the warmth of the house. His eyes never opened but they heard soft groans as they moved him about. Ben shouted for Hop Sing. “Adam’s hurt.” The Cartwright’s loyal friend and housekeeper appeared long enough to watch as Hoss folded his brother’s body close to his own and walk up the stairs. “I send someone for doctor.” Ben nodded and followed Hoss upstairs. Hop Sing hurried out the front door.

*****

When Joe first opened his eyes, even the dull light from the lantern sent waves of pain through his head. He quickly shut them again. His muddled brain gave him only quick glimpses of where he was and how he got there. He waited for the flashing images to slow down then tried opening his eyes again. The pain was bearable this time. He reached out to steady himself before trying to push up to his knees. His hand slid in something slick and wet. Pulling back, he looked down to see what it was. Blood—his hand had slid in a pool of blood. It was enough to ignite his memory.

Tentative at first, as if he didn’t trust what he remembered, he called to his brother, “Adam?” But abruptly, the memories flooded back and Joe shouted his brother’s name, “Adam!” He staggered to his feet holding on to the upright behind him.

“Have a nice nap, Joe?” Johnson came into view, carrying the lantern with him.

Joe lunged forward only to be easily thrown to the ground. Johnson pulled his gun and aimed it at Joe’s head. “Don’t do that again boy or your Daddy’s gonna have two dead sons.”

The dizziness was overwhelming and Joe could only lean against the cold wall, fighting to catch his breath. Salt tears stung his eyes. Johnson tied his hands once more and Joe didn’t resist. He felt as if a piece of his heart had been torn away. “Why—you were gonna kill me? Why’d you kill Adam?”

“Your brother made that choice. I just obliged him.” Johnson stepped back.

“We sent him home with a note for yer Pa. Can’t imagine old Ben’ll wait too long. He won’t want to bury two of ya.” They heard hoof beats.

Johnson left his captive sitting in the dim light that filtered in from the mouth of the mine. Joe hung his head. He felt as if his whole body had turned in on itself, leaving him empty. At this moment, he didn’t care what they did to him or if his father came or not. “Oh Pa, how do I tell you?’ He stared at the dark puddle slowly seeping into the dirt.

*****

Ben and Hoss finished removing Adam’s clothes. They gently washed the dried, clotted blood from around the ugly, ragged gash and padded it with soft white linen. The wound that had obviously bled so profusely now only seeped slowly onto the bandage that covered it. Hop Sing brought warmed blankets and they layered them around the still figure.

The inevitable wait began. Hoss stood across the room with his back to the window. His eyes darted between his brother and his father. As much as his sorrow for Adam and his fear for Joe twisted within him, he could only imagine the pain of his father. He moved behind Ben and placed a hand on his shoulder. “I’ll get the men together and start lookin’ for Joe.”

As if afraid Adam would disappear if he looked away, Ben’s eyes never left his boy’s face. “You have no idea where Joe is. Where will you start?”

“We knew they was going to the timber camp. I’ll start there,” Hoss said. Ben didn’t answer.

Hop Sing returned with coffee for the men and a hot brick wrapped in soft flannel for Adam’s feet. After placing the brick, he started to pick up the discarded clothes from the floor. He heard the sound of paper being crumpled and saw the end sticking out from one of the back pockets.

Hoss pulled the note out and was about to place it on Adam’s desk when he saw Ben Cartwright scrawled across the page. “Pa—look here.” He handed the note to his father.

Ben’s already tired and drawn features lost their color and Hoss was glad his father was sitting down. “It’s a ransom note for Joe.” His voice was no more than a soft murmur. “We’re sending one back dead so you know we ain’t afraid to kill the other one.” Ben flinched when he read the word dead and his eyes momentarily glanced back to the bed. “Put $25,000 in saddlebags and leave ‘um at the entrance to the Old Cross Creek mine. Noon tomorrow. Unless you wanna bury two sons, leave the law out of it.” Ben let the note slip into his lap. He reached for Adam’s hand. “He feels warmer now.”

After a moment Ben scrubbed his eyes with his free hand than said, “I want you to ride into Virginia City in the morning and draw out the money.” Do as they ask.”

“You sure that’s what you want Pa? You don’t want me to tell Roy?” Hoss asked.

“We can’t take that chance—not with Joe’s life. I can’t lose…” Ben stopped then continued, “Not with Joe’s life.”

Hoss walked back over to the window and looked out at the cold gray light as it faded into darkness. “Ok Pa, whatever you say.”

*****

Hop Sing helped Dr. Martin as Ben and Hoss looked on. Paul had asked the Cartwright men to leave but had no time to argue when they seemed reluctant. Adam’s heart beat was fast and faint. It was obvious that he’d lost a great deal of blood. Paul pulled back the linen and looked at the gaping wound. He removed his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. Hop Sing had a basin and towel ready and as Paul washed his hands, he thought of the best approach to give Adam any chance at all.

He pulled a bottle of anesthetic and a wad of cotton from his bag. Addressing Hop Sing, Paul said, “If he starts to wake up or move around, pour some of this on the cotton and hold it by his mouth and nose.” Hop Sing nodded. The doctor removed his instruments from the hot water and put them on a clean cloth at the bedside. Using a probe, he advanced it into the wound to see how deep the knife had penetrated. However reluctant to do anything that would cause any more blood loss, Paul knew he had to survey the damage he couldn’t see. Scalpel in hand, he hesitated for a moment before slicing through undisturbed tissue. Blood blossomed from the enlarged wound and ran in small rivulets toward the sheets.

Hoss felt his father stagger. With a strong arm around Ben’s waist, the young man led his father out into the hall. Both men leaned against the wall. “Come on, Pa. Come on downstairs and sit for awhile.”

Ben acted as though he hadn’t heard Hoss speak. “How much more? How much more can they do to my son?”

“Come on Pa—come on with me.” Hoss led his father away.

Paul Martin found it tough going and when the surgery ended, he didn’t know if it had made any difference or not. The attacker’s knife had penetrated layers of skin and muscle and fat and the bowel beneath. He sewed the hole in the perforated tube and cleaned the area as best as he could. Strong thread was used to bind the ravaged flesh together.

The doctor placed a hand on his patient’s chest than his forehead. A fine sheen of sweat covered Adam’s fevered body. He hadn’t moved during the surgery. His only response had been a deep guttural groan at the initial cut. It was then that Paul was aware of Hoss taking Ben from the room and he was glad. No man should have to watch what was being done to his son.

The doctor wondered if he’d done his friend any favor at all. All his experience and instincts told him that the young man before him would succumb to his wound and the subsequent infection it would bring. It occurred to him that in his rush to do whatever he could to save Adam’s life, he had no idea what had happened or who had done this to him. And where was Joe? He shook his head and asked Hop Sing, “Would you please ask Ben and Hoss to come back up?” Hop Sing left to do as Doctor Martin asked.

*****

It was deep into the night when Joe awoke from a light and restless sleep. His head ached and his body was stiff from the cold. The thought of Adam’s death crashed in on him and Joe felt as if he’d never draw another breath without thinking of his brother. God, why had they chosen Adam? But he knew the answer—Adam hadn’t given them any choice. He never would have permitted anything else save getting them both out of there.

The despair that consumed Joe was slowly being replaced by the hatred he felt for the two men who had changed their lives forever. He couldn’t bring his brother back but he could destroy the men who had taken him away. He wrapped himself in the cold comfort of revenge and waited.

*****

Paul Martin stood on the far side of the bed, fingers searching for a pulse at his patient’s wrist. It had slowed some but was still faint. Ben entered and sat at his son’s side not looking up at the doctor. Hoss stood behind him.

Afraid to ask, Ben let Hoss do it for him. “Doctor Martin?”

“It’s a nasty wound, deep and dirty. I’ve cleaned him out and repaired the damage.” Paul put a hand on Adam’s brow. “He’s started a fever but I expected that.”

Ben took his son’s hand. “He was so cold when we found him.”

“Cold—-tell me how you found him,” the doctor asked.

Hoss answered. “He came home across his saddle, his hands tied to one side and his feet to the other. Whoever done this thought he was dead.” Hoss grimaced at the picture that came to his mind.

Paul Martin thought for a moment. “It may not seem so but the cold and being face down may have saved his life.” Both Cartwright men now looked at him, not understanding what he meant. “I mean the cold slowed the bleeding and being face down allowed his coat to act like a pressure dressing against the wound. I doubt he would have survived this long had it not been for those two things.”

“And will he continue to survive?” Ben asked.

“No guarantees, Ben, but he’s still with us and there’s always hope.” How little to offer a devastated family, Dr. Martin told himself. He picked up the dirty instruments and put them in the pan of hot water and soap that Hop Sing had provided. Not wanting to answer any more questions, Paul gently changed the subject. “Where’s Little Joe?”

Ben looked away trying to hide the new tears that rushed to his eyes. Hoss squeezed his father’s shoulder then walked to Adam’s desk. He picked up the ransom note and handed it to the doctor. Paul read it. “Dear God,” he murmured.

Ben stood up. “We’ve decided to follow their instructions exactly—no law. We ask that you to respect that decision.”

“Of course, Ben, if you think that’s best.” The doctor busied himself packing up his bag and retrieving his coat. “Think I’ll go downstairs for some coffee. Knowing Hop Sing, I’m sure he has it ready.” He looked at Adam once more. “Let me know if he rouses.”

“Hang on, doc, I’ll go with ya,” Hoss said. “I won’t be long,” he told his father. Getting no response, Hoss shook his head and followed the doctor out of the room.

There was something comforting about being alone with his son. Ben’s mind wandered back to a time when it had just been the two of them. They weren’t easy times, to be sure, but the love and closeness the two had shared made up for anything else that might have been missing. Time and circumstance had taken that little boy away from him but he’d be damned if some killer would take away the man.

Ben’s thoughts were interrupted by soft whimpering sounds. Adam was starting to come around. “You’re home son. I know you’re in pain but try to lie still.” He wiped the beaded face with a cool cloth. Ben watched as Adam’s lids slowly opened to reveal eyes glassy with fever and pain.

“Pa? How did I…?” Adam’s words came out on a sigh.

Ben leaned close to his son’s face. “I’m here, boy, and you’re home with us. That’s all that matters now.” He watched as Adam’s mind strained to pull all the pieces together. Suddenly a look of terror twisted his features and his eyes darted around the room.

Finding strength in his panic, Adam began to struggle. “Joe—-where’s Joe?”

“Adam, you’ve got to lie still. Please, son, you’ll tear open your wound.” Ben pressed hard on his son’s shoulders but Adam continued to fight. Desperate, Ben shouted for Hoss. He was grateful when he heard the clamor on the stairs.

Hoss rushed into the room followed closely by the Dr. Martin and Hop Sing. He sat on the other side of the bed and held his brother’s arms down. “Adam, now you gotta listen to Pa and the doctor. Ya can’t keep movin’ around like this or you’ll hurt yerself worse.”

Adam stopped struggling and looked at his brother. “You don’t understand. They have Joe.” He turned to his father. “Where is he? They were supposed to send him back to you.” He took a great breath. His next words were lost in a sob. “Oh Pa, I tried. It was supposed to be me—not him.” Adam’s eyes closed. “Not Little Joe.”

Hoss felt the muscles beneath his hands relax and he knew Adam had slipped into a place where none of them could follow.

*****

The early morning light was grayed by a heavy mist as Hoss quietly entered the barn. He walked to his own mount and scratched his neck. He noticed how thick the animal’s hair had become since the onset of colder weather. He turned to Buck who looked back at him through sleepy eyes then sounded a soft greeting. Hoss drew in a quick breath when he saw Cochise’s empty stall. His eyes finally came to rest on his older brother’s horse. Funny, he thought, how each animal had his own personality. Sport had a way of making himself known without being noisy or aggressive. He just stood there, not seeking attention but sure that it was his due.

Hoss brought Chubb out and started the ritual of grooming and tacking up. His thoughts went back to the upstairs bedroom. He had gone in to see his father but found him sleeping in chair pulled up close to Adam’s bed. Ben still held his son’s hand in his own and Hoss was sure that if Adam stirred his father would know it. His brother hadn’t moved since his effort last evening. Adam thought Joe was dead and he somehow blamed himself for it. They had no chance to tell him differently. Hoss pulled Chubb’s cinch tight. For all he knew, Joe was thinking the same thing about Adam. He brought his mount out of the barn and rode toward Virginia City. The mist had turned into a fog and horse and rider disappeared.

Despite the weather, Hoss was able to draw out the money and arrive at the Cross Creek mine by noon. The fog had lightened but still lingered making objects into ghostly shapes. He stopped at the mouth of the old mine and looked around. There were fresh boot tracks everywhere and Hoss had no doubt this was where his brothers had been held captive. He dismounted and untied the bags from the back of his saddle. He placed them on the ground at the entrance then remounted. He could only hope the kidnapper would keep his word. He took one last look around then started back the way he came.

They stood flattened against the far wall of the tunnel; Johnson next to Joe, with his gun pushed into his prisoner’s side. Joe’s wrists were still bound and his kidnapper had taken the precaution of gagging him. They heard the sounds of a departing rider but Johnson made no move toward the entrance. He’d come too far—murdered a man—he wasn’t going to take any chances now. They waited. Finally, a figure stood just beyond the opening. Travis had been watching from above to make sure whoever came with the money hadn’t brought along any company. Johnson motioned for Joe to move toward the mouth of the mine.

“I was gonna send you back to your Pa,” Johnson said, “but killin’ you will get rid of the last witness. ‘Fraid I can’t let you tell the law who killed your brother.” He pulled the gag from Joe’s mouth.

“You think my brother and father will stop until they find you? Adam was right; you are stupid,” Joe said. He felt Johnson’s gun slam into the side of his face. The blow knocked him to his knees. He reached up and pushed the stream of blood away from his eye.

Johnson aimed his gun and pulled back the hammer. Joe looked into the killer’s eyes. “You’ll hang for killing my brother. I only wish I could be there to laugh when they pull open the trap door.”

A shot echoed through the mine and pieces of the ceiling began to crumble around them. Joe watched Pete Johnson clutch his abdomen. The gunman seemed surprised when he pulled away a blood covered hand. Slowly, he turned his head toward the figure that emerged from this fog and mist. Hoss Cartwright stood before him, gun in hand. Johnson fell to the ground. His eyes still open but unseeing.

A low rumble broke the silence. Hoss grabbed Joe by the arm and dragged him toward the light. Rocks tumbled from the ceiling burying Johnson. They emerged coughing from the dust that belched through the opening. Joe stumbled and Hoss eased him to the ground. “How did you—where is Travis?” Joe asked.

Hoss pulled at the ropes that bound Joe’s hands. “I dropped the money and rode off. It was just foggy enough for me to hide behind a stand of pines but I was close enough to see anybody comin’. It didn’t take Travis long.” He finally freed Joe’s hands then went to get his canteen and a cloth from his saddlebag. With gentle strokes, he uncovered the damage that Johnson’s gun had done to his brother’s face. “Travis was hidin’ just outta sight. Guess he wanted to make sure that the sheriff wasn’t with me. I managed to sneak up behind him just when he started back to the mine. He’ll wake up in time.” Hoss gestured to an area just to the right of the opening. “Johnson and Travis—-I never would’ve thought it,” Hoss said, shaking his head.

Joe remained silent. The rage he felt was now buried beneath tons of rock with Johnson. He felt cheated. He wanted the satisfaction of killing the man himself. Emptiness crept back in filling the space left by rage. Taking a great shuddering breath, Joe said, “Oh Hoss, what am I gonna say to Pa?”

“Easy Joe, what’d mean?” Hoss reached out to try and comfort his brother.

“They were gonna kill me, not Adam. Don’t you see, he wouldn’t let them. That’s why he’s dead.” Joe’s breath caught on a sob. “How do I tell Pa that Adam died in my place?” Joe collapsed into Hoss’ arms.

“Joe—Joe listen to me. Adam ain’t dead. He’s home with Pa. He’s hurt bad but Doc Martin’s with him.” Hoss waited for what he said to sink in.

“Alive—Adam’s alive? But Johnson said he was dead and there was so much blood. How can he be alive?” Joe looked at Hoss in disbelief.

“Can you ride alright?” Hoss asked. Joe nodded. “Come on, let go find Cochise and git home.”

*****

Adam had been restless from the burning fever but hadn’t regained consciousness. The only sounds he made were deep, elongated moans whenever he moved too much. Ben had slept in the chair at his bedside. Hop Sing had come and gone, helping him change the sweat soaked sheets and cool down the heated flesh.

His boy seemed quiet for the moment. Ben walked to the window and looked out at the fog that still shrouded the landscape. He leaned into the casing. One son grievously ill, another missing and Hoss not yet home. It was worse than any nightmare he could imagine. A sound from outside made him look up. Two riders came out of the mist. His heart jumped. He instantly knew it was his two youngest. He squeezed his eyes shut and thanked God. He walked to Adam’s side and placed the back of his hand against the sweaty cheek. “He’s home, son—your brother’s home.”

Hop Sing entered the room. “You go see Lit’l Joe. I stay here.” Ben gave him a brief smile then left.

The boys were just coming through the front door when Ben stepped onto the landing. Joe looked up at his father. Both stopped for a moment taking in the welcome sight of the other. Ben’s voice faltered, “Joseph.”

Joe walked to his father and buried himself in the comfort of his father’s arms. Ben held his trembling son. “You’re safe now.” Hoss passed them on the stairs as he headed toward his brother’s room.

Ben pushed Joe away so he could look at him. He saw that the left side of his face was bloody and bruised. “Are you alright, son?”

“I’m fine Pa but Adam…?”

Ben heard the pleading in Joe’s voice. “They hurt him terribly but he’s still with us,” Ben answered, his own voice a harsh whisper. “Why don’t you clean up and let Hop Sing see to your face.”

“Pa, there’s something you need to know…,” Joe started to say but his father interrupted him.

“I’ll listen, Joe, I promise but please do as I ask first.”

Joe dropped his head and walked up the stairs to his room. Ben followed close behind.

Hop Sing fussed over the youngest Cartwright, cleaning his face and plastering it with a paste of herbs meant to lessen the swelling. Joe had washed the best he could knowing nothing would really help until he could get into a warm bath. The little cook had brought him a cup of thick soup and brown bread with instructions for him to eat it and assurances that Adam’s condition had not changed.

Joe padded out into the hall in sock feet. He hesitated at Adam’s door. His stomach muscles clenched and he felt as if his small dinner would not stay down. He put an arm against the door and leaned into it taking deep breaths to steady his stomach and his heartbeat. He knew he had to tell his father what happened and in his heart; he knew his father wouldn’t blame him. Hoss wouldn’t blame him. So why did he blame himself? He opened the door, walked to Adam’s bedside and knelt down.

His father was right behind him in the overstuffed chair and Hoss stood at the window. “Tell me what they did to him.”

Hoss walked forward. He wanted to save his father from having to relay the story of how they found Adam and the awful damage that had been done to his body. He told Joe all that they knew and what Doctor Martin had said to them. “They thought he was dead,” Hoss said.

Joe’s eyes never left his brother’s face. “I did too,” he said. He turned so he could see both his father and Hoss. “They picked me to die, not Adam.” Ben stared at him in surprise and confusion. “I tried to jump them even though I knew we didn’t stand a chance and I…” He stopped. “I let them get to me and I lost my temper. That’s when they said they were gonna kill me. Adam tried to reason with them but they weren’t interested.”

Joe glanced back at his brother shallow breathing then continued, his voice quieter still. “They came to get me and I don’t remember much after that except waking up with a headache and a bump on the back of my head.” A sob tore from his throat. “It was supposed to be me!”

Ben felt his chest tighten for the suffering both his boys had endured, both thinking the other was dead. One thought he was the cause, the other thought he was a failure. “You never could have stopped Adam once he had made a decision. Nor are you responsible for the choice that he made.” He paused then said, “Don’t do this to yourself, Joseph. You cannot be responsible for anyone else’s decisions but your own.”

“But he’s paying for…” Joe started to say.

“He’s paying for the choices that were made by others, not for something you did.” They heard Adam’s deep voice as he tried to move away from the pain. Joe got up so that his father could sit on the bedside. Ben took his son’s hand.

“Joe—Little Joe.” The words were spoken as if part of a dream. ”I’m sorry Joe.” He stopped moving and opened his eyes.

“Joe is here with us. He’s home,” Ben said. Joe and Hoss stood behind their father.

Adam had heard his father but everything was veiled in a soft white haze. And it was so hot—why was it so hot? Slowly the veil dissipated and his family came into focus—all of them. His voice was thin with disuse. “Joe—I thought they killed you. When I woke up here, I thought…” He stopped, unable to push out anymore words.

Ben let Joe sit close to his brother. “No, Adam, I’m fine. Really I am.” He felt his brother’s long fingers lightly touch his damaged face.

A small half smile lit Adam’s features. “Yeah, I can see that.” After a long exhaled breath, Adam’s head dropped to the side. Joe held the hand tightly between his own.

*****

Spring had come late that year and the Cartwright men were glad to escape into the sunshine and warmth at last. Ben pulled Buck up on a ridge overlooking the lake. The water was a deep blue with the sun sparkling off the surface. The beauty and renewal of the land never ceased to amaze him. He smiled as his sons raced their horses toward the lake shore—all of his sons. It had been a long and grueling recovery for Adam. But he improved every day and the freedom of being outside and able to ride once more, helped him put the violence he and Joe had suffered behind him. Both his boys had healed. Ben urged Buck down the rocky path toward the lake.

***The End***

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